Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Power That Remains

The passing of fitness icon Jack Lalanne, who died last Sunday at the age of 96, called up a modest flurry of tributes and retrospectives in the media, and a great many of these made a point I don’t think their authors had in mind. If I’d tried to dream up an imaginary example of the way our culture’s obsessions distort our sense of history, I doubt I could have managed anything half so telling.

Not, you understand, that Lalanne’s life and achievements didn’t deserve the attention the media gave them, or indeed a good deal more than they’re likely to get. If the value of an exercise system is best measured by the long-term health and strength of its chief promoter, which seems fair enough, Lalanne is hard to beat, given that he was still doing strength feats in his nineties that would put most of today’s muscular twentysomethings to shame. Nor were these achievements the result of the gimmickry that so often catapults people to their fifteen minutes of fame; Lalanne’s feats as well as his career as a fitness teacher were achieved the old-fashioned way, through the unfaddish combination of sound practical advice, hard work, and a cheerful and consistent willingness to walk his own talk.

No, the thing that made the media tributes so striking is the extraordinary way that they edited Lalanne right out of his actual historical context. Stories in print and electronic media alike called Lalanne a pioneer, the man who first taught Americans to exercise. It’s no discredit to the man to point out that he was nothing of the kind. Lalanne was, rather, one of the very last great figures in what was once a huge and influential movement in American culture, and has now been systematically erased from our collective memory.

The phrase that was standard before that erasure took place was “physical culture.” From the 1870s until the Second World War, across the English-speaking world and in many other countries as well, those words conjured up much the same imagery that the current Lalanne retrospectives put back into circulation, however briefly, in the imagination of our time: a genial blend of robust exercise, healthy eating, spectacular feats of strength, and more or less colorful showmanship. Against a background of Victorian ladies doffing their corsets to swing Indian clubs, young men stripped to the waist hefting kettlebells full of lead shot, and circus strongmen challenging all comers to match them lift for lift, scores of figures now forgotten made their names into household bywords: Eugen Sandow, whose impressive exploits and even more impressive physique first made weightlifting fashionable in the Western world; Genevieve Stebbins, who taught exercise to three generations of American girls around the turn of the last century; Joseph Greenstein aka “The Mighty Atom,” the diminutive Polish-American strongman whose signature trick was tying a #2 iron horseshoe into an overhand knot with his bare hands, and many more – among them, and far from the least, Jack Lalanne.

It takes only the briefest bout of research, especially in the age of the internet, to uncover all this and put Lalanne into his proper context. Why, then, the distortion of history, reminiscent of nothing so much as those Politburo photos from Stalin-era Russia from which former members were so studiously erased? Why, for that matter, is it a fairly safe bet that when Jane Fonda passes away, the media will briefly if lavishly praise her as the pioneer who taught America to exercise, and pretend that Jack Lalanne never existed?

There are at least three reasons, and all of them are relevant to the wider project of this blog.

The first, a point discussed here tolerably often, is the contemporary American obsession with fantasies of progress. We don’t like to think about the fact that by and large, Americans these days are weaker, less healthy, and less capable than their great-grandparents. When we do think about that, we like to frame it in a narrative that turns it into a brand new problem ready for some clever solution or other – that is to say, another opportunity for progress. Now it so happens that declining health and fitness in industrial societies has been a recognized issue since the nineteenth century, the physical culture movement emerged as a response to that issue, and what we are pleased to call cultural progress since that time has undercut the response and made the situation significantly worse, but this doesn’t fit the sort of historical narrative most of us prefer. The tacit amputation of the past is a neat solution to that difficulty.

The second reason, which is closely related to the first, is that from its beginning, the physical culture movement took a critical stance toward the products of industry and the lifestyles made possible by the extravagant use of fossil fuels. That expressed itself in a great many obvious ways – Jack Lalanne’s trademark habit of teaching people to exercise using simple household items instead of expensive apparatus, and his insistence on leaving most industrially processed foods out of the diet, are classic examples – but it also ran right down to the root assumptions of the whole movement. The core idiom of modern industrial society, after all, is the replacement of human capacities with gaudy technological crutches; we buy cars as substitutes for feet, televisions as substitutes for imagination, and so on.

Physical culture focused instead on developing the innate, extraordinary capacities hardwired into the human individual. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when a great many people were deeply concerned about the consequences of human dependence on an industrial technostructure, that was an exhilarating prospect, and it’s no accident that the most famous stunts of the more colorful physical culturists very often took the form of an unassisted human body accomplishing some feat usually left to machines. These days most of us have surrendered to the technostructure so completely that we try to avoid thinking of the downside of that surrender, and spectacles that astonished and delighted our great-grandparents make today’s audiences uncomfortable and bored. How many people would turn out nowadays to watch the Mighty Atom tie horseshoes into knots? We’ve all seen fancier things done with CGI, and CGI allows us to avoid the awkward and quite explicit subtext of the Mighty Atom’s demonstrations, which was that anybody who was willing to do the necessary work could accomplish the same thing – or, for that matter, very nearly anything else.

That brings up the third reason why Jack Lalanne had to be presented as a unique, eccentric, and therefore harmless figure, rather than the last major public exponent of a movement that invited everyone’s participation. His accomplishments, like those of the great physical culturists before him, depended on something utterly unmentionable in contemporary industrial culture. It’s more strictly tabooed than sex or death or the total dependence of today’s middle-class American lifestyles on Third World slave labor. Yes, we’re talking about self-discipline.

It’s an interesting wrinkle of history that imperial societies in decline normally fear what’s left of their virtues far more than they fear their vices. James Francis’ useful 1994 study Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World chronicles how Rome’s rulers found the reasoned self-discipline taught by Stoic and Platonic philosophies an unendurable challenge to their authority. You can find similar conflicts in the history of imperial China, the Muslim world, or, really, wherever the decline of imperial states is well enough documented. The reason behind these conflicts is simple enough: people who are ruled by their passions and appetites can be ruled just as efficiently by any political system willing to pander to those things, while those who control themselves can’t reliably be controlled by anyone else. Thus the Roman government regularly sent Rome’s philosophers into exile, failing Chinese dynasties praised Confucius to the skies while doing away with anybody who took his teachings too seriously, and modern America uses every trick in the media’s book to marginalize those who remind us that the life of a channel-surfing couch potato might not express the highest potentials of our humanity.

The taboo on self-discipline in contemporary America is all the more intriguing because just at the moment, sadomasochism has become the hottest new fad on the American left. Connoisseurs of the return of the repressed have much to appreciate in the spectacle of a subculture that claims to place an absolute value on human equality, but is busily getting its rocks off by acting out fantasies in which male dominance and female submission are far and away the most popular themes. Still, I suspect that part of what set this fad in motion is an inchoate but widespread sense that there are whole worlds of human possibility that can’t be reached by drifting along aimlessly and doing whatever seems easiest at the moment. Those who have that sense and are unable to conceive of self-mastery inevitably seek masters elsewhere; we will be very fortunate indeed if that quest goes no further than latex lingerie and a fashion for wearing leather collars.

However that process works out, though, Jack Lalanne and the movement that gave him his context have another lesson to teach that will be of key importance in the decades to come. The replacement of human capacities with technological crutches that provides industrial society with its central idiom depends utterly on the ability of industrial society to keep itself fueled with the energy resources that keep those crutches powered, supplied with spare parts, and replaced when they break down. As we move further into the twilight space beyond the world peak of conventional petroleum production, the ability to keep those resources flowing as abundantly as current expectations demand is coming into question. Those nations with the power to push their way to the head of the petroleum feeding trough are doing so with even more alacrity than before, while those shoved back to the end of the line are increasingly facing crippling energy shortages. Within nations, those classes and pressure groups with a similar preponderance of power are behaving in much the same way, with similar results.

The instinctive response to these struggles is generally to get right down there into the mud-wrestling pit and fight for a share. A more effective strategy, though, might well take the opposite tack. When a resource is depleting and no plausible replacement for it is in sight, staying dependent on that resource is a fool’s game; even if you win this round, sooner or later you’re going to lose, and time that could have been spent learning to function without the resource has been wasted floundering around in the mud. Phase out your dependence on the resource before you have to do so, recognizing that the actual requirements of human existence are quite modest and can be met in many different ways, and you put yourself in a much better position for the future.

Over the weeks to come, as this blog returns to the nitty gritty of the Green Wizards project, we’ll be discussing various ways to cut back on dependence on fossil fuels and the goods and services they provide. Much of the material to be covered in the posts to come will involve tools and devices of various kinds – most of them cheap, many of them suited to basement-workshop manufacture, all of them means toward a certain degree of independence from the vagaries of an industrial civilization that faces a rising spiral of crises and an increasing lack of ability to provide its inhabitants with the goods and services they have become used to getting from it. Still, it’s too often forgotten that the vast majority of the energy and technology most of us use each day goes to provide support of various kinds for an individual human body and mind. If that body and mind require less support from outside their own boundaries, there’s less need for the energy and technology in the first place. When every other source of power runs short, that’s the power that remains.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you ought to break out the Indian clubs and kettlebells and download a couple of old physical culture manuals off the internet, or for that matter pick up an old Jack Lalanne book or two, though I certainly wouldn’t discourage anybody who chooses to do this; there’s a certain definite attraction, after all, in the prospect of reaching one’s nineties with the kind of physique and vitality that most thirty-year-olds only dream about. What it means, rather, is that a certain capacity to cope with physical challenges, take over responsibility for your own health, and get by comfortably in most situations without a great deal of technological assistance, are all useful items in the toolkit of anyone who hopes to face the difficult years ahead with any degree of efficiency and grace. How you choose to pursue that is up to you, but however you do it, if you do it, I suspect that Sandow, Stebbins, the Mighty Atom, and all their sturdy peers – Jack Lalanne very much among them – would be pleased.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Onset of Catabolic Collapse

I’ve commented more than once in these essays on the gap in perception between history as it appears in textbooks and history as it’s lived by people on the spot at the time. That’s a gap worth watching, because the foreshortening of history that comes with living in the middle of it quite often gets in the way of figuring out a useful response to a time of crisis – for example, the one we’re in right now.

This is all the more challenging because the foreshortening of history cuts both ways; it makes small but sudden events look more important than they are, and it also helps hide slow but massive shifts that will play a much greater role in shaping the future. Recent increases in the price of oil, for example, kicked off a flurry of predictions suggesting that hyperinflation and the sudden collapse of industrial society are right around the corner; identical predictions were made the last time oil prices spiked, the time before that, and the time before that, too, so the traditional grain of salt may be worth adding to them this time around. (We’ll most likely get hyperinflation in the US, granted, but my guess is that that will come further down the road.) Look at all these price spikes and notice that the peaks and troughs have both tended gradually upwards, on the other hand, and you may just catch sight of the signal hidden in all that noise – the fact that providing industrial civilization with its most important fuel is loading a greater burden on the world’s economies with every year that passes.

The same gap in perception afflicts most current efforts to make sense of the future looming up ahead of us. Ever since my original paper on catabolic collapse first found its way onto the internet, I’ve fielded questions fairly regularly from people who want to know whether I think some current or imminent crisis will tip industrial society over into catabolic collapse in some unmistakably catastrophic way. It’s a fair question, but it’s based on a fundamental misreading both of the concept of catabolic collapse and of our present place in the long cycles of rise and fall that define the history of civilizations.

Let’s start with some basics, for the sake of those of my readers who haven’t waded their way through the fine print of the paper. The central idea of catabolic collapse is that human societies pretty consistently tend to produce more stuff than they can afford to maintain. What we are pleased to call “primitive societies” – that is, societies that are well enough adapted to their environments that they get by comfortably without huge masses of cumbersome and expensive infrastructure – usually do so in a fairly small way, and very often evolve traditional ways of getting rid of excess goods at regular intervals so that the cost of maintaining it doesn’t become a burden. As societies expand and start to depend on complex infrastructure to support the daily activities of their inhabitants, though, it becomes harder and less popular to do this, and so the maintenance needs of the infrastructure and the rest of the society’s stuff gradually build up until they reach a level that can’t be covered by the resources on hand.

It’s what happens next that’s crucial to the theory. The only reliable way to solve a crisis that’s caused by rising maintenance costs is to cut those costs, and the most effective way of cutting maintenance needs is to tip some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster. That’s rarely popular, and many complex societies resist it as long as they possibly can, but once it happens the usual result is at least a temporary resolution of the crisis. Now of course the normal human response to the end of a crisis is the resumption of business as usual, which in the case of a complex society generally amounts to amassing more stuff. Thus the normal rhythm of history in complex societies cycles back and forth between building up, or anabolism, and breaking down, or catabolism. Societies that have been around a while – China comes to mind – have cycled up and down through this process dozens of times, with periods of prosperity and major infrastructure projects alternating with periods of impoverishment and infrastructure breakdown.

A more dramatic version of the same process happens when a society is meeting its maintenance costs with nonrenewable resources. If the resource is abundant enough – for example, the income from a global empire, or half a billion years of ancient sunlight stored underground in the form of fossil fuels – and the rate at which it’s extracted can be increased over time, at least for a while, a society can heap up unimaginable amounts of stuff without worrying about the maintenance costs. The problem, of course, is that neither imperial expansion nor fossil fuel drawdown can keep on going indefinitely on a finite planet. Sooner or later you run into the limits of growth; at that point the costs of keeping wealth flowing in from your empire or your oil fields begin a ragged but unstoppable increase, while the return on that investment begins an equally ragged and equally unstoppable decline; the gap between your maintenance needs and available resources spins out of control, until your society no longer has enough resources on hand even to provide for its own survival, and it goes under.

That’s catabolic collapse. It’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds, because each burst of catabolism on the way down does lower maintenance costs significantly, and can also free up resources for other uses. The usual result is the stairstep sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.

It’s easy enough to track catabolic collapse at work in retrospect, when you can glance over a couple of centuries of decline in an evening with one of Michael Grant’s excellent histories of Rome in one hand and a glass of decent bourbon in the other. Catching it in process, though, can be a much more challenging task, because it happens on a scale considerably larger than a human lifespan. In its early stages, the signal is hard to tease out from ordinary economic and political fluctuations; later on, it’s all too easy to believe that any given period of stabilization has solved the problem, at least until the next wave of crises rolls in; late in the game, as crisis piles on top of crisis and cracks are opening up everywhere, your society’s glory days are so far in the past that it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of the fact that calamity isn’t the normal shape of things.

Still, the attempt is worth making, and I propose to make it here. In fact, I’d like to suggest that it’s possible at this point to provide a fairly exact date for the onset of catabolic collapse here in the United States of America.

That America is a prime candidate for catabolic collapse seems tolerably clear at this point, though I’m sure plenty of people can find reasons to argue with that assessment. It’s considered impolite to talk about America’s empire nowadays, but the US troops currently garrisoned in 140 countries around the world are not there for their health, after all, and it requires a breathtaking suspension of disbelief to insist that this global military presence has nothing to do with the fact that the 5% of our species that live in this country use around a quarter of the world’s total energy production and around a third of its raw materials and industrial products. The United States has an empire, then, and it’s become an extraordinarily expensive empire to maintain; the fact that the US spends as much money on its military annually as all the other nations on Earth put together is only one measure of the maintenance cost involved.

That America is also irrevocably committed to dependence on dwindling supplies nonrenewable fossil fuels also seems clear at this point, though here again there are plenty who would dispute the point. Even if there were other energy resources available in the same gargantuan amounts – and despite decades of enthusiastic claims, every attempt to deploy other energy resources to replace a significant amount of fossil fuels has run headfirst into crippling problems of scale – the political will to carry out a transition soon enough to matter has not been present, and the careful analyses in the 2005 Hirsch report are among the many good reasons for thinking that the window of opportunity for that transition is long past. The notion that America can drill its way out of crisis would be funny if the situation was not so serious; despite dizzyingly huge government subsidies and the best oil exploration and extraction technology on Earth, US oil production has been in decline since 1972. As the first nation to develop a commercial petroleum industry, it was probably inevitable that we would be among the very first to hit the limits to production and begin slipping down the arc of decline. As for coal and natural gas, the abundance of the former and the glut of the latter are the product of short term factors; while press releases aimed mostly at boosting stock prices insist that we’ll have supplies of both for centuries to come, more sober analysts have gotten past the hype and the hugely inflated reserve figures and predicted hard peaks for both fuels within thirty years, and quite possibly sooner.

That being the case, the question is simply when to place the first wave of catabolism in America – the point at which crises bring a temporary end to business as usual, access to real wealth becomes a much more challenging thing for a large fraction of the population, and significant amounts of the national infrastructure are abandoned or stripped for salvage. It’s not a difficult question to answer, either.

The date in question is 1974.

That was the year when the industrial heartland of the United States, a band of factories that reached from Pennsylvania and upstate New York straight across to Indiana and Michigan, began its abrupt transformation into the Rust Belt. Hundreds of thousands of factory jobs, the bread and butter of America’s then-prosperous working class, went away forever, and state and local governments went into a fiscal tailspin that saw many basic services cut to the bone and beyond. Meanwhile, wild swings in markets for agricultural commodities and fossil fuels, worsened by government policy, pushed most of rural America into a depression from which it has never recovered. In the terms I’ve suggested in this post, the US catabolized most of its heavy industry, most of its family farms, and a good half or so of its working class, among other things. It also set in motion the process of catabolizing one of the most important resources it had left at that time, the oil reserves of the Alaska North Slope. That oil could have been eked out over decades to cushion the transition to a low-energy future; instead, it was pumped and burnt at a breakneck pace in order to deal with the immediate crisis.

The United States was not alone in embracing catabolism in the mid-1970s. Britain abandoned most of its own heavy industry at the same time, plunging large parts of the industrial Midlands and Scotland into permanent depression, and set about catabolizing its own North Sea oil reserves with the same misplaced enthusiasm that American politicians lavished on the North Slope. The result was exactly what history would suggest; by embracing catabolism, the US and Britain both staggered through the crisis years of the 1970s and came out the other side into a breathing space of relative stability in the Reagan and Thatcher years,. That breathing space was extended significantly when the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, beginning in 1989, allowed American and British economic interests and their local surrogates to snap up wealth across Eurasia for pennies on the hundred-dollar bill, in the process imposing the same sort of economic collapse on most of a continent that had previously been inflicted on the steelworkers of Pittsburgh and the shipbuilders of Glasgow.

That breathing space ended in 2008. At this point, I’d suggest, we’re in the early stages of a second and probably more severe round of catabolism here in America, and throughout Europe as well. What happened to the industrial working class in the 1970s is now happening to a very broad swath of the middle class, as jobs evaporate, public services are slashed, and half a dozen states stumble down the slope that will turn them into the Rust Belt equivalents of the early 21st century. Exactly what will happen as that process continues is anybody’s guess, but it’s unlikely to end as soon as the round of catabolism in the 1970s, and it may very well cut deeper; neither we nor Britain nor any other of our close allies has a big new petroleum reserve just waiting to be tapped, after all.

It’s crucial to remember, though, that catabolism is a response to crisis and at least in the short term, much more often than not, an effective response. The fact that we’re moving into the second stage of our society’s long descent into catabolic collapse doesn’t mean that America will fall apart in the next decade or so; quite the contrary, it strongly suggests that America will not fall apart this time around. As the current round of catabolism picks up speed, a great many jobs will go away, and most of them will never return; a great many people who depend on those jobs will descend into poverty, and most of them will never rise back out of it; much of the familiar fabric of life in America as it’s been lived in recent decades will be shredded beyond repair, and new and far less lavish patterns will emerge instead; outside the narrowing circle of the privileged classes, even those who maintain relative affluence will be making do with much less than they or their equivalents do today. All these are ways that a society in decline successfully adapts to the contraction of its economic base and the mismatch between available resources and maintenance costs.

Twenty or thirty or forty years from now, in turn, it’s a fairly safe bet that the years of crisis will come to a close and a newly optimistic America will reassure itself that everything really is all right again. The odds are pretty high that by then it will be, for all practical purposes, a Third World nation, with little more than dim memories remaining from its former empire or its erstwhile status as a superpower; it’s not at all impossible, for that matter, that it will be more than one nation, split asunder along lines traced out by today’s increasingly uncompromising culture wars. Fast forward another few decades, and another round of crises arrives, followed by another respite, and another round of crises, until finally peasant farmers plow their fields in sight of the crumbling ruins of our cities.

That’s the way civilizations end, and that’s the way ours is ending. The phrasing is deliberate: "is ending," not "will end." If I’m right, we’re already half a lifetime into the decline and fall of industrial civilization. It can be challenging to keep that awareness in mind when wrestling with the day to day details of getting by in an ailing, sclerotic nation with a half-failed economy – or, for that matter, when trying out some of the technologies and tricks I’ve been discussing here in recent months. Still, it’s worth making the attempt, because the wider view arguably makes it a bit easier to keep current events in perspective and plan for the future in which we will all, after all, be spending the rest of our lives.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Secret of Herding Cats

Granted, it was the season for giving, but I’m not at all sure that justifies the extraordinary Christmas present Dr. David Shearman has given the climate change denialist movement. Readers of mine who haven’t yet heard of Shearman need not worry; they will be hearing far too much about him in the months and years ahead.

Shearman, for those who haven’t encountered his name yet, is an Australian scientist who has a long string of publications in the field of global warming to his credit, and who had an active role in the Third and Fourth Assessments issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international scientific body tasked with sorting out just what our tailpipes and smokestacks are doing to the Earth’s climate. He is also the co-author of a recent book, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. In this book, he argues that democracy is incapable of dealing with the global climate change crisis, and therefore needs to be replaced by an authoritarian world government with the power to force people to do what Shearman thinks they ought to do.

Those of my readers familiar with the long and inglorious love affair betweeen a certain class of Western intellectual and the totalitarian end of the political spectrum already know what to expect from Shearman’s book, and they will not be disappointed. Shearman and his co-author Joseph Wayne Smith argue that “authoritarianism is the natural state of humanity” (p. xvi) and that people who agree with their views ought to form “an elite warrior leadership” to “battle for the future of the earth” (ibid). They propose the manufacture of a new eco-religion out of the green movement and New Age movement in order to “provide social glue for the masses” (p. 127), and spend a chapter discussing the training of “natural elites” to provide his imagined regime with “ecowarriors to do battle against the enemies of life” (p. 134). It’s all laid out in quite some detail; very nearly the only thing Shearman and Smith fail to mention is what symbol will go on their warrior elite’s armbands.

I wish I could say I was surprised by the publication of Shearman’s book, or the fact that the Pell Foundation sponsored its publication. The craving for unearned power that has afflicted intellectual idealists since Plato’s time has cropped up tolerably often in the last few decades of green activism; the substantial popularity of David Korten’s profoundly antidemocratic The Great Turning is only one sign among many. Still, there’s a difference of some importance. It takes a careful reading of Korten’s book to notice how his division of humanity into “developmental stages,” which just happen to equate to political opinions, morphs into a claim that political power ought to be monopolized by those who share Korten’s own background and views. Equally, The Great Turning is as coy about the methods Korten’s would-be elite will use to enforce their power as it is about the reasons why giving that elite unchecked authority will solve the world’s problems. Shearman and Smith have no such qualms; their totalitarian daydream is right out there in the open.

That in itself points straight to the false logic at the core of The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. What failed was not democracy but climate change activism, and the stunning political cluelessness on display in Shearman’s and Smith’s book is a central reason why.

One wonders what on Earth Shearman was thinking when he sent the manuscript to the publisher. Did it never occur to him that people who disagree with his views would read the book, and make abundant political hay out of it? They have, dear reader, and it’s a safe bet that they will, as hostile reviews of The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy are already showing up on conservative websites. To be fair, it would demand superhuman forbearance for them to steer clear of what is, all things considered, a climate denialist’s wet dream: a book in which a significant figure on the other side ‘fesses up to an authoritarian agenda extreme enough to support even the wildest accusations of the far right. Climate change activism is already reeling from a nearly unbroken sequence of body blows in the political arena, and an even more serious loss of public support; by the time the climate denialists finish working it over, using Shearman’s book as a conveniently blunt instrument, there may not be much left of it.

It’s worth glancing back over the last decade or so to get a sense of the way this book fits into the broader process by which climate change activism ran off the rails. In 2001, despite fierce opposition from business interests and right-wing parties generally, it was very much in the ascendant, and some form of regulation of carbon emissions looked like a done deal. Opposition from the White House and well-funded think tanks notwithstanding, the movement to limit CO2 emissions could have become the sort of juggernaut that extracted the Endangered Species Act and a flurry of other environmental legislation from another conservative Republican administration thirty years earlier. That it did not was, I think, the result primarily of three factors.

The first was the astonishing political naivete of the climate change movement. All through the last decade, that movement has allowed its opponents to define the terms of public debate, execute a series of efficient end runs around even the most telling points made by climate science, and tar the movement in ever more imaginative ways, without taking any meaningful steps to counter these moves or even showing any overt interest in learning from its failures. Partly this unfolds from the fixation of the American left on the experiences of the 1960s, a fixation that has seen one movement after another blindly following a set of strategies that have not actually worked since the end of the Vietnam war; partly, I suspect, it’s rooted in the background of most of the leading figures in the climate change movement, who are used to the very different culture of scientific debate and simply have no notion how to address the very different needs of public debate in society that does not share their values.

This latter point leads to the second primary factor in the failure of the climate change movement, which is the extent that it attempted to rely on the prestige of institutional science at a time when that prestige has undergone a drastic decline. The public has become all too aware that the expert opinion of distinguished scientists has become a commodity, bought and sold for a price that these days isn’t always discreetly disguised as grant money or the like. The public has also been repeatedly shown that the public scientific consensus of one decade is fairly often the discarded theory of the next. When you grow up constantly hearing from medical authorities that cholesterol is bad for you and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, and then suddenly he medical authorities are saying that polyunsaturated fats are bad for you and some kinds of cholesterol are good, a certain degree of blind faith in the pronouncements of scientists goes out the window.

Part of the problem here is the gap between the face institutional science presents to its practitioners and the face it shows to the general public. In the 1970s, for example, the public consensus among climate scientists was that the Earth faced a new ice age sometime in the not too distant future. This was actually only one of several competing views aired privately among scientists at the time, and there were spirited debates on the subject in climatological conferences and journals, but you wouldn’t have learned that from the books and TV programs, many of the former written by qualified scientists and most of the latter featuring them, that announced an imminent ice age to the world at large. It’s become fashionable in some circles just now to insist that that never happened, but the relics of that time are still to be found on library shelves and in museums. When I visited the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC a year ago, for example, the exhibit on ice age mammals had a fine example: an illuminated display, prominently located, explaining that scientists expected a new ice age sometime in the next millennium or so. An embarrassed staff member had taped up a makeshift sign next to it announcing that current scientific opinion no longer supported that claim, and the display would be replaced sometime soon.

The mental whiplash caused by sudden changes in scientific opinion, each one announced to the public in terms much less tentative than it generally deserves, has played a larger role in hamstringing climate change activism than most of its supporters may find it comfortable to admit. Notice, though, that the uncertain nature of scientific knowledge didn’t prevent the passage of the Endangered Species Act or a baker’s dozen of other environmental initiatives in the Seventies; in fact, the scientific community was far more divided over ecological issues at that time than it is about climate change today. That was arguably a benefit, because it forced proponents of environmental protection to approach it as a political issue, to get down into the mud wrestling pit with their opponents, and to address the hopes, fears, and concerns of the general public head on, in terms the public could understand and accept. By and large, climate change activists have not done this, and this is an important reason why they have been so thoroughly thrashed by the other side.

Still, I’ve come to think that a third factor has played at least as important a role in gutting the climate change movement. This is the pervasive mismatch between the lifestyles that the leadership of that movement have been advocating for everyone else and the lifestyle that they themselves have led. When Al Gore, after having been called out on this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism, and bids fair to imitate those old legends of California’s future and dump the entire movement into the sea.

In order to cut CO2 emissions to the levels that would be necessary to prevent drastic climate change, many details of the modern American lifestyle have to change – not sometime off in the future, but right now. The automobile needs to become much less pervasive than it is today; even an electric car has to get its electricity from somewhere, and for the time being, that “somewhere” is going to be a power plant that burns coal or natural gas. Air travel needs to become a very occasional luxury at most. The McMansion with its cathedral ceilings and blind disregard for energy efficiency needs to give way to much more modest structures. Energy efficiency needs to become at least as central to daily life as it was during the last round of energy crises.

None of these changes were in any way out of reach. The American people accepted equivalent shifts with tolerably good grace in the Second World War, and then again in the Seventies. The crucial factor in both these previous cases, though, was that the people who were advocating them were generally also doing them themselves. Simple as it seems, that’s the secret of effective leadership; people will respond to “come with me” a lot more readily and enthusiastically than they will to “go that way.”

That’s also the secret of herding cats. I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people in one or another corner of the activist scene throw up their hands in despair and describe the task of organizing people to seek some form of change or other as being like trying to herd cats. In point of fact, herding cats is one of the easiest things in the world. All you have to do is go to the place you want the cats to go, carrying with you a #10 can of tuna and an electric can opener. The moment the cats hear the whirr of the can opener and smell the fragrance of the tuna, they’ll come at a run, and you’ll have your herd exactly where you want them. Now of course that strategy assumes two things. It assumes that you’re willing to go to the place you want the cats to go, and it also assumes that you have something to offer them when they get there.

That sums up what has been one of the most critical problems with the climate change movement: it has been calling on the world to accept a lifestyle that the movement’s own leaders have shown no willingness to adopt themselves, and thus have been in no position to model for the benefit of others. That’s left the movement wide open to accusations that it means its policies to apply only to other people – accusations that have not exactly been quelled by the efforts of various countries, the US very much included, to push as much of the burden of carbon reduction as possible onto their political and economic rivals. I trust I don’t have to spell out how such suspicions will be amplified by Shearman’s cheerleading for exactly the sort of authoritarian politics in which some people’s carbon footprint would inevitably be more equal than others’.

All these points are profoundly relevant to the core project of this blog, for many of the weaknesses I’ve traced out are also found in the peak oil movement. That movement has no shortage of political naivete, and it has plenty of spokespeople who mistakenly assume that their professional expertise – significant as that very often is – can be cashed in at par for influence on public debate. It also has its share of leaders who are perfectly willing to talk in the abstract about how people need to ditch their autos and give up air travel, but insist that they themselves need their SUV for one reason or another and wouldn’t dream of going to the next ASPO conference by train. These are serious weaknesses; unchecked, they could be fatal.

Of course there are other, critical reasons why a certain degree of political sophistication, a recognition that expertise is not enough to carry public debates, and a willingness to embrace the lifestyles one proposes for others – and especially the last of these – are essential just now. The most important of those reasons is that in terms of industrial civilization’s energy future, it’s very late in the day. It’s late enough, in fact, that it’s possible to start talking about the specific point in time when catabolic collapse begins in earnest here in the United States. I’ll be discussing that in next week’s post.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Tarpaper Shack Principle

Was it just me, or were last Friday’s New Year celebrations a bit short on enthusiasm? The chance to give the smoking wreckage of 2010 a decent burial might have inspired some cheer, except that 2011 seems unlikely to bring anything better. With the price of oil lurching around the $90-something a barrel range, a so-called economic recovery that has been almost entirely confined to press releases, and the electorate slowly waking up to the fact that the only change they can believe in that’s coming from the Obama administration is the kind Rudy Vallee sang about in “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” – well, let’s just say that none of this adds up to optimism for the year ahead.

Thus the New Year’s Eve blog post from Chuck Burr at Southern Oregon Permaculture was timely. At a time when plenty of people are still insisting that the whole world can adopt a middle-class lifestyle powered by renewable energy resources, Burr cited hard numbers from a representative case study – his own solar-powered home – to show why high-tech renewables are at most a way station partway down the Long Descent. His argument will be familiar to readers of this blog: the photovoltaic system that powers his home won’t generate enough electricity in its lifetime to both account for the power that goes into making and maintaining it, and provide enough electricity to maintain a modern lifestyle for its end user. Burr went on to suggest, reasonably enough, that using high-tech renewables is still a good idea for now, since it will help cushion the future in which green plants may well turn out to be the most efficient source of primary energy around.

He’s likely right, but there are challenges in the way of even so modest a project. The obvious issue – the fact that the very large number of people closing in on their 99th and last week of unemployment benefits, and the even larger number caught in the stagflationary vise of dwindling wages and soaring bills, aren’t going to be in any position to buy and install expensive photovoltaic systems – is symptomatic of a far more profound and pervasive difficulty.

That difficulty, interestingly enough, was sketched out well in advance in the pages of The Limits to Growth, still the best – and thus, inevitably, the most reviled – map of the future toward which the industrial world is hurtling, eyes closed and pedal to the metal. It’s always fascinated me that in a society that claims to make most of its decisions on the basis of economics, so few people grasped the essentially economic argument at the core of the Limits to Growth analysis. That study did not claim, as so many people still insist it claimed, that the resources on which industrial society depends are going to up and run out one of these days. It proposed, rather, that the real costs of extracting resources and dealing with the consequences of environmental pollution, both of which are driven by economic growth, necessarily increase faster than the rate of economic growth itself, and sooner or later will force industrial civilization to its knees.

Perhaps the most visible signpost along the way to that destination is the point at which a society can no longer provide for its future and pay its current expenses out of existing resources. You know that point has arrived when a society begins neglecting its infrastructure, slashing basic services, discarding those economic sectors that cost too much to maintain, and abandoning those people who lack the political clout to make good a claim on slices of the dwindling pie. Readers here in America who don’t find this description oddly familiar are encouraged to take a good hard look out the nearest window.

The consequences of that logic pose an immense challenge to the more optimistic proposals for dodging the resource crunch at the end of the age of cheap petroleum – the nuclear power plants, high-speed rail networks, immense solar installations in assorted desert countries, and the rest of it. All these would require huge inputs of real wealth – not currency, which can be manufactured at will by central banks, but energy, materials, knowledge, and labor – real wealth – which are a good deal harder to conjure up out of twinkle dust. The Limits to Growth model suggests that underneath the smoke and mirrors of the financial economy lies the awkward fact of a shortfall in real wealth, caused by the need to divert a growing fraction of real wealth to meet the direct and indirect costs of extracting resources, on the one hand, and coping with the impacts of environmental pollution on the other. If that’s what’s going on – and I think a good case could be made for that thesis – then trying to scrape together enough real wealth to cover the cost of these projects simply piles another burden onto an already overloaded economic structure, and if pursued with enough misplaced enthusiasm, could conceivably become the trigger that brings the whole thing crashing down.

Now of course there’s another way to go about preparing for a future of scarce expensive energy, and it’s one of the key strategies of the "green wizardry" I’ve been discussing here iover the last six months or so. The central concept of that strategy might as well be called the Tarpaper Shack Principle: you don’t actually have a resilient energy technology unless you can build it from readily available materials, and put it to work for some useful purpose, while living in the kind of tarpaper shack the last Great Depression made famous. You may well end up living in something like that, you know; a great many people did the last time the industrial economy came unglued, and we are arguably in a much worse position today than in 1930, so looking up some renewable energy technologies that could have been made and used in a 1930s Hooverville may be more than a thought exercise just now.

Finding such technologies may seem like a tall order. It isn’t; there are scores of proven, mature technologies that can be tacked together from scrap, powered by renewable energy sources that cost little or nothing, and contribute mightily to getting the basic tasks of living done more easily, safely, and cheaply. The fireless cooker, the topic of last week’s post here, is one of them, and so is the technology I’d like to introduce this week, the solar box cooker.

It’s hard to think of anything as cheap that accomplishes as much. You can make one out of cardboard, glue, used newspaper, aluminum foil, and a piece of discarded window glass. Placed in direct sunlight, it will easily get up to oven temperatures and cook your meals for free. It can also be used to purify tainted water, sterilize bandages, or do anything else that 300° to 400° F of even heat will do for you.

The solar box cooker also has the not inconsiderable advantage of teaching three of the basic rules of working with solar energy in a way most people grasp intuitively at once. Rule #1 is the greenhouse effect: energy from sunlight that passes through glass and is absorbed by something inside the glass tends to get trapped there, because glass is transparent to visible light but opaque to the infrared wavelengths that radiate out from warm objects. Rule #2 is the thermal mass effect: some materials absorb heat better than others, and if you put something with a high capacity for heat absorption in the presence of a heat source – say, a pot of beef stew in direct sunlight – it will soak up heat that can then be put to work. Rule #3 is the insulation effect: some materials resist the flow of heat better than others, and if you surround your thermal mass with a bunch of insulation, the heat absorbed by the thermal mass will stick around longer and do more work. (Keep these three rules in mind and most of what we’ll be covering in the months just ahead will be a lot easier to follow.)

There are several standard designs of solar box cooker. The simplest looks exactly like what the term suggests, a square or rectangular box – or, more precisely, a box within a box, with insulation between them to form a heat barrier – with a pane of glass on top. A hinged lid covers the glass when the box cooker isn’t in use; it has tinfoil on the underside, so that when you’re ready to use the box, the lid can be propped up at an angle to reflect more sunlight into the box. Yes, you can make one out of cardboard and newspaper in about an hour, and yes, you can then set it out in the sun and cook your dinner with it.

The more complex designs put the glass pane at an angle, to increase the amount of sunlight that gets in, and have more reflecting surfaces for the same reason; the fanciest look like metal flowers or props from 1970s science fiction movies, and you don’t want to make them out of cardboard because they can get hot enough inside to set the cardboard on fire. I’ve seen some very impressive solar box cookers on the fancy end of things, with mirrors that would do justice to a telescope and elegant arrangements to track the sun; they arguably go well beyond anything you’d be able to put together while living in a tarpaper shack, but there’s always the possibility that you might get lucky while combing through the ruins of an abandoned suburban housing development.

Two other developments off the same basic approach are also worth mentioning. The first was invented by one of the patron saints of green wizardry, the redoubtable 19th-century French solar energy pioneer Augustin Mouchot. Tasked by the French government with coming up with solar technologies for the French colony in Algeria – which has a surplus of sun and, at least in Mouchot’s time, a shortage of most other energy sources – Mouchot invented, among other things, a solar cooker for units of the French Foreign Legion stationed there. The device was simplicity itself – a cone of metal, reflective on the inside; a cylindrical steel cooking chamber that went up the centerline of the cone; and a tripod stand. Mouchot’s solar cooker was collapsible, weighed less than forty pounds, and cooked a pot roast to a nice medium rare in under half an hour. It remained standard issue for French troops in North Africa for decades; I have no idea if any examples survive, but it’s 19th century technology, and an enterprising metalworker ought to be able to knock one together fairly easily – even in a tarpaper shack.

The other device I have in mind comes from the other end of the solar cooking spectrum, but it’s as elegant as the Mouchot cooker and even more portable. The Umbroiler was invented by American solar pioneer George Löf and marketed for a while in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s exactly what the name suggests: a sturdy umbrella frame with silver metallized cloth in place of the usual fabric, a grill in place of the handle, and a tripod on what’s normally the top of an umbrella and is the underside of the Umbroiler. It folds up like any other umbrella, but when you open it and point it toward the sun, you can cook anything from fried eggs to hot coffee on the grill. The original version was too expensive to be commercially viable, due mostly to the high cost of metallized fabric back in the 1960s; these days, that has changed, and since any patents have long since expired, a revival of the Umbroiler could make somebody with a sewing machine and some metalworking skills a very functional small business.

By now, I suspect, some of my more skeptical readers will doubtless be jumping up and down, eager to point out that solar cookers aren’t viable everywhere, and only work when the sun’s shining. This is of course true, but it’s also beside the point. Nothing in the appropriate technology toolkit is suited to every context – that’s one of the implications of that word "appropriate," after all – and nothing ever again in human history will provide our species with the kind of instant, context-free torrent of energy we now get from fossil fuels. Once those are gone, the entire approach to technology that’s built on the assumption of abundant, highly concentrated, highly portable energy supplies goes whistling down the wind, and the approaches – in the plural – that will replace it are going to be less convenient, less portable, and less capable of ignoring the rest of the cosmos than what we’re used to.

What that means in practical terms is that the well-equipped kitchen in the tarpaper shack that’s waiting for you a few years down the line will have a solar box cooker, which you can use on sunny days, and a small, efficient stove and fireless cooker, which you can use on cloudy days. It really isn’t that complicated, once you grasp the crucial point that a technology that relies on diffuse renewable energy sources doesn’t work the same way as a technology that relies on concentrated fossil fuels. That’s one of the lessons of the Tarpaper Shack Principle, and it’s also one of the gifts that the solar box cooker in particular has to offer.


The solar box cooker is one of the few creations of the old appropriate tech movement that hasn’t been allowed to languish in obscurity, largely because of its huge advantages in the Third World. The photocopied pamphlets I got back in the day from Solar Box Cookers Northwest, one of the pioneering organizations in the field, have long since been superseded by websites brimfull of practical information. The best of the lot just now is -- click on the link marked "build a solar cooker" and you’ll soon be wallowing in plans I would gladly have given my eye teeth to get hold of thirty years ago.

There are also several very good books on the subject. Beth Halacy and Dan Halacy’s Cooking with the Sun is a little out of date but remains well worth having, not least because of its detailed recipes and cooking instructions. Joseph Radabaugh’s Heaven’s Flame covers many of the newer developments and provides an excellent guide to designing and building your own inexpensive solar cookers. Another durable classic, Ken Butti and John Perlin’s A Golden Thread, covers the early history of solar cooking and has a good illustration of Mouchot’s solar cooker.