Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Myth of the Machine

The strategy discussed in last week’s post—that of walking away from energy-intensive lifestyles before the waning of the age of abundant energy brings them grinding to a halt—is a viable response to the crisis of our age, but it’s also a great way to poke a stick at some of the most deeply entrenched of the modern world’s dysfunctional habits of thinking. Suggest it in public, for example, and you’ll very quickly learn why all that talk about saving the planet has turned out to be empty air: everyone’s quite willing to watch someone else make sacrifices for the good of the biosphere, but ask them to make sacrifices themselves and you’ll see just how far their love of the planet extends.

In honor of the ongoing failure of global climate talks, let’s call the resulting dance the Copenhagen cha-cha—one step forward, three steps back, run in a circle making squawking noises, and then point the finger of blame at somebody else on the dance floor. Over the years to come, you can expect to see that number done on a scale that would make the ghost of Busby Berkeley turn green with envy. Yet there’s more going on here than simple hypocrisy. To make sense of the reasons why so many people who know perfectly well that their own lifestyles are dragging the world to ruin still can’t bear the thought of living any other way, it’s going to be necessary to explore some of the murkiest crawlspaces of the modern mind. We can start, once again, with the automobile.

I suggested last week that the private auto is simply one way to get people and light cargoes from one place to another. Strictly speaking, that’s true, but it’s true in much the same sense that sex is simply one way to distribute the adult population among the supply of available bedrooms. Especially but not only in America, the car has been loaded down with so much in the way of powerful cultural fantasies and emotional drives that it’s almost impossible to talk about it in purely practical terms. I dislike cars, and not just on principle—chalk it up, maybe, to a family habit of long pointless Sunday drives with the smoke from my father’s cheap cigarettes pooling like a miasma in the back seat—and I’ve never owned one, or had a driver’s license. I’ve still felt, while catching a ride with friends to some Druid gathering or the like, the lure of the open highway that plays so huge a role in America’s collective psyche.

That’s a major theme in our national character that I suspect many people elsewhere in the world simply don’t get. The vast majority of white Americans are descended from people who turned their backs on the static ways of the Old World to chase the dream of a better life on the other side of the ocean, and that pattern of seeking a new life elsewhere has repeated far more often than not with each generation. One of the many factors that make white Americans so clueless about nonwhite Americans, in turn, is that that experience isn’t shared with the other peoples of this nation. For us, that first journey beyond limitations has always defined the American experience, but for African-Americans, their encounter with this continent was a bitter exile into bondage; for the Hispanic population this side of the Rio Grande, the defining experience was dispossession—white Americans like to forget that the southwestern quarter of our country used to be the northern half of Mexico, before we stole it from them at gunpoint—and for the first inhabitants of this continent, it was not merely dispossession but very nearly annihilation. A road leading into the far distance means something very different to the descendants of pioneers on the Oregon Trail than it does to the descendants of those who survived the Trail of Tears.

Still, even among white Americans, the dream of freedom somewhere on the far side of the horizon could at least theoretically have expressed itself in many different ways. It so happens that nowadays, at least, it almost always expresses itself through the automobile. This is why Americans cling to their cars with such frantic intensity, and why Republican politicians—always a better barometer of the American mass psyche than their Democrat rivals—so reflexively treat any alternative to the private car as a threat to America’s freedom. On any rational level, of course, that’s the most vacuous sort of hogwash, but on a nonrational level—on the level of collective passions and mass fantasies where most human motivation takes shape—it’s a potent reality. If freedom consists of being able to turn the key, put the pedal to the metal, and go zooming off to a new life somewhere else, a future of buses and trains lumbering along fixed routes with somebody else driving is a future where freedom no longer exists, and a future in which nothing speeds along on wheels—in which life plods along at a walking pace—doesn’t bear thinking about at all.

The cultural processes that condensed the experience of a people into the dream of a perpetual quest to catch the receding horizon, and then bound that dream into a talisman perched on four rubber tires, are hard to discuss in any meaningful way without using words like "spell" and "enchantment." Part of the magic involved, to be sure, was the work of the sorcerers of Madison Avenue, who flogged the dream into a bloody pulp in order to sell yet another round of otherwise uninteresting products, but there’s more than that to the misplaced concreteness that confuses freedom with a machine.

Glance over at a different technology and the same misplaced concreteness appears in even sharper relief. The technology I have in mind here is television. I don’t own one of those, either; I grew up watching TV, of course, like everyone else in my generation, but got heartily bored with it in my teen years and haven’t had one in the house in my adult life. Mention this to most Americans, though, and the reaction you’ll get is considerably more violent than the one you get if you admit that you don’t use a car. There’s a defensive quality to it, the sort of brittle edge you only get when the mere fact that you don’t share somebody’s habit flicks them on the raw.

If you’ve ever walked past a suburban neighborhood at night when some much-ballyhooed show was on, and seen the blue light flickering in perfect sync in the windows of house after house, you might have caught some sense of the reason why. If the automobile is America’s talisman of freedom, the television is its talisman of community, of participation in a world of shared activities and shared meanings. Notice how often casual talk in a social setting veers at once in the direction of something that was on the television, or how hard it is to find a tavern these days that doesn’t have half a dozen big television screens blaring inanities from all sides. We stare at the screens, because that makes it easier not to notice the world around us, or each other.

For most Americans, television has come to represent the experience of collective participation, and yet the flickering lights in the suburban windows serve as a reminder that few activities are more solitary or more isolating. In precisely the same way, the freedom represented by the car moving down the open road is a pathetic illusion; from the immense government programs that build and maintain those open roads, through the gargantuan corporate systems that produce the cars, to the sprawling global network of oilfields, pipelines, refineries, and the rest of the colossal system that transforms fossil hydrocarbons into the gas that keeps the car going, there are few human activities on Earth that depend more completely on the vast and faceless bureaucracies that most Americans think they despise. Isolation packaged as participation, dependence packaged as freedom: there’s much to be learned here about the power of thaumaturgy to twist the meanings of things—but I want to go one step further here.

Americans by and large accept an extraordinary degree of dependence on a machine—the automobile—in order to invest that machine with the feelings and dreams that cluster around the concept of freedom. We accept an extraordinary degree of dependence on another machine—the television—in order to give that machine the emotional charge that other societies give to participation in collective meanings and activities. Sort through any of the narratives that play a central role in contemporary American culture, and you’ll find a machine at the center of each one. Thus it’s absolutely predictable that when Americans try to think about finding some way out from between the narrowing walls closing in on our future, nearly everything they come up has some kind of machine at its heart. A solar panel, a wind turbine, an electric car, a thorium reactor, a supercomputer, a flying saucer or a nuclear bomb, take your pick, but it’s got to be based on a machine.

A good many years ago, Lewis Mumford wrote two hefty volumes under the joint title The Myth of the Machine. It’s vintage Mumford and thus by definition well worth reading, but it’s also very much a work of its time, a well-aimed blast against the superlative technological efficiency and utter ethical failure of America’s pursuit of the Vietnam war. Since I first read it, I’ve wished that Mumford could have found time to pursue the promise of the title in a good deal more depth. There is indeed a myth of the machine in the strict sense of that much-abused word "myth," and I’ve come to see the extraordinary fixation on that myth as one of the major barriers in the way of a viable response to the crisis of our time.

Let’s start with the basics. What is a machine? There are plenty of ways to answer that deceptively simple question, but I’m going to propose a provocative one. It requires a bit of background, though, and so I’m going to have to approach it in a slightly roundabout way.

As human beings our experiences fall into two broad categories. One of these comprises what we might as well call the outer world—the world we experience in the form of sensations perceived by the five senses. The other comprises what we might correspondingly call the inner world—the world we experience in the form of thoughts and feelings perceived directly by the mind. Those two worlds overlap in the body, which we can explore as a sensory object but which we can also perceive directly as a locus of thoughts and feelings. Outside that overlap, for each of us, those two worlds are distinct; we can’t perceive our own personality, for example, as a sensory object, or experience directly what’s going on in the inner lives of the other beings we encounter.

Developmental psychologists noticed a long time ago that the process of growing up involves a curious double movement in the way each of us experiences these two worlds. It takes the infant a great deal of time and exploration to figure out the difference between the inner and outer worlds and sort out what belongs on which side of the boundary. It then takes the child quite a bit more time and experience to realize that both worlds exist on both sides of the boundary—that he or she is an object in the outer world of others as well as the subject of the inner life of his or her own, and that others have their own inner lives. Arriving at this realization is one of the core things that’s meant by the word "maturity," and entire worlds of human experience are closed to those who refuse it.

Everything we do as mature human beings thus falls along a continuum between what philosopher Martin Buber called "I-It" and "I-Thou" relationships—less obscurely, between those interactions in which the individual can simply deal with other things as objects, and those in which he or she must deal with other beings as subjects with their own inner lives and their own capacities for interpretation and choice. Getting stuck in the sort of useless binary that treats the spectrum as a total opposition and labels its ends "evil" and "good" respectively is as useless a move as it is inevitably popular, since the universe of human experience embraces the whole spectrum, and it’s entirely possible to fall into absurdity in either direction—on the one hand, for example, by treating other human beings as objects, and getting blindsided by their responses to that sort of treatment; on the other, by convincing yourself that you can ignore the laws of nature by applying to the cosmos the sort of means that induce changes in the behavior of a human subject. (The cosmos may well be a subject—there’s a long and by no means unsophisticated philosophical tradition of seeing it in such terms—but the chance that it will respond favorably to your wheedling are no better than your chances of responding to the desires of any one of the dust mites living on your skin at this moment.)

A machine, though, can never be a subject. Machines imitate the actions of persons, but they have no subjectivity, no inner world; they’re always and only objects, and so the only relationship you can have with them is an I-It relationship. That wouldn’t be a problem, except for the torrent of cheap abundant energy that transformed the world of human experience over the last three centuries. The breakthroughs that set that torrent in motion were precisely methods of using fossil carbon of various kinds to power machines. Before then, power consisted almost entirely in the ability to express the will of the individual through I-Thou relationships—the human relationship of monarch to subject, general to soldier, lord to vassal, and the like were quite simply what power meant.

With the coming of the industrial age, that equation changed. Power exerted through a machine is defined purely by I-It relationships, and that’s become the modern definition of power. I suspect that, as much as greatly improved technologies of killing, had a great deal to do with the extraordinary scale of mass murder in the 19th and 20th centuries. Tamerlane may have had his soldiers exterminate the whole population of a city now and then, but the methodical annihilation of entire peoples by national governments as an ordinary element of peacetime policy was, if not new, then at least unusual in the scale and the casualness with which it has been applied.

That’s a very specific effect; there are many broader ones. One of those is the democratization, at least in the industrial world, of the experience of domination. A modern American climbing into the driver’s seat of a large SUV has more sheer physical energy under his direct control than your average Southern plantation owner had before the Civil War. Talk of "energy slaves" isn’t simply a metaphor; the one difference between power exerted by dominating machines and power exerted by dominating human slaves is again that the machines don’t have an inner life; they won’t slack off when the overseer isn’t looking, head north on the Underground Railroad, or join Nat Turner’s rebellion and cut your throat some fine Virginia night.

So the role played by machines in the modern industrial world, in large part, is as the primary focus for the very common human craving for power. The fact that the appearance of power is purchased at the cost of total dependence simply makes the irony that much richer; people nowadays cling to their autos and their televisions all the harder because they know perfectly well that the sensation of power as the engine roars is an illusion, and that a community that goes away when you change the channel doesn’t actually meet their needs for participation. Take a hard look at any other technology that has a central role in contemporary culture, and you’ll find the same nexus between an illusion of power, a reality of dependence—and a large and increasing cost. How that nexus might be unraveled in the twilight of the industrial age will be the subject of next week’s post.

End of the World of the Week #6

The mere fact that a belief system’s proponents claim that it’s a perfectly rational scientific theory doesn’t prevent that belief system from being yet another example of our old friend, the apocalypse meme. There are plenty of examples that show this in action, but the most colorful of the last century and a half has to be Marxism.

Back before it imploded under the strains of its own internal contradictions, Marxism was among the ideologies that most loudly proclaimed the superiority of science and reason to superstition. Behind the rhetoric, though, the historical structure of Marxist theory is point for point identical to that of evangelical Protestant Christianity There’s a real point, in fact, in suggesting that Marxism was simply the furthest extension of one end of the spectrum of Christian heresy.

Follow out the historical trajectory and the parallels are easy enough to track. Primitive communism is the Garden of Eden; the invention of private property is the Fall; the period between the rise of property and the coming proletarian revolution, divided into various stages, is the period between the Fall and the Second Coming, divided into various dispensations; the peasant revolutionary movements of the feudal and early capitalist periods play the role of the Israelites; the life of Marx fills the same role as the life of Jesus, with the doings of the First International as the Acts of the Apostles; the horrors of late capitalism followed by proletarian revolution are dead ringers for the horrors of the Tribulation followed by the Second Coming; the era of socialism, finally, is the Millennium, the thousand years before the final descent of the New Jerusalem of communism.

Of course this colorful trajectory has something else in common with such offshoots of evangelical prophecy as the career of Harold Camping; its predictions turned out to be completely wrong. Marx insisted that the great proletarian revolution would break out first in the most advanced industrial nations; instead, Marxist revolutions only succeeded in nations just beginning to industrialize, where Marxism played the same role of convenience that Puritanism played in the English Civil War and Enlightenment rationalism in the French Revolution. Furthermore, and far more significantly, the first Marxist revolution wasn’t followed by the gradual overthrow of capitalism around the world; instead, Marxism reached its high-water point in the 1950s and then receded, as the golden promises of Das Kapital gave way to gray bureaucratic inefficiency and, in time, total systemic failure.

—story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Waking Up, Walking Away

Last week’s Archdruid Report post, despite its wry comparison of industrial civilization’s current predicament with the plots and settings of pulp fantasy fiction, had a serious point. Say what you will about the failings of cheap fantasy novels—and there’s plenty to be said on that subject, no question—they consistently have something that most of the allegedly more serious attempts to make sense of our world usually lack: the capacity to envision truly profound change.

That may seem like an odd claim, given the extent to which contemporary industrial society preens itself on its openness to change and novelty. Still, it’s one of the most curious and least discussed features of that very openness that the only kinds of change and novelty to which it applies amount to, basically, more of the same thing we’ve already got. A consumer in a modern industrial society is free to choose any of a dizzying range of variations on a suffocatingly narrow range of basic options—and that’s equally true whether we are talking about products, politics, or lifestyles.

I suppose the automobile is the most obvious example, but it has dimensions not always recognized and these bear a closer look. To begin with, the vast majority of cars for sale these days are simply ringing changes on a suite of technologies that was introduced in the late 19th century and hit maturity close to fifty years ago. That’s as true of electric and hybrid cars, by the way, as it is of the usual kind—the hype surrounding the so-called “hybrid revolution” conveniently fails to mention that the same system has been used for more than sixty years in diesel-electric locomotives, and cars powered by electricity were common on American roads before the Big Three auto firms succeeded in getting a stranglehold on the industry during the last Great Depression. Steam-powered cars were also to be had back then—the Stanley Steamer was a famous brand; try finding one now.

What variations can be found nowadays are almost entirely a matter of style rather than substance, and this becomes even more evident when it’s recognized that the auto is simply one way to get people and light cargoes from one place to another. Are there other ways to do this? You bet, but none of them get the saturation advertising, the huge capital investments in manufacturing and distribution, or the vast government subsidies on local, state, and federal levels that cars receive on an ongoing basis. It’s a continuing source of amusement to listen to the pseudoconservatives who dominate the Republican Party these days denounce the very modest government funding that goes to passenger rail service and public transit. Ask them if they’re willing to give up Federal highway dollars, to name only one of the huge subsidies that autos receive, and you’ll very quickly hear a different tune.

It so happens that I don’t own or drive a car, and indeed I never have. Among its other benefits, that’s a good way to see the limits on the alleged freedom of choice that the consumer economy provides its inmates. In today’s America, you can live without a car, but most other choices you make are going to be sharply curtailed by that decision. When my wife and I decided a few years back to leave the west coast and settle in the Rust Belt, scores of pleasant towns we might otherwise have chosen were ruled out in advance because the only way to go from there to anywhere else was to drive a car, and our options for buying a house were just as tightly constrained by the need to be within walking distance of groceries and other necessary services. All those choices the propagandists of the consumer economy prattle about? They exist, but only if you give up your right to make any of the decisions that matter.

That same logic applies across the board in today’s industrial societies. What products would you like to buy? If it’s not something that a handful of gargantuan corporations want to make and market for you, good luck. Would you like a voice in the political process? Sure, but only if you agree with one of two or three major parties whose positions differ so little you’ll need a micrometer to tell them apart. How about a different lifestyle? Here’s the list of available options, every one of them a slight variation on the common theme of shopping for products and running up debt; if that’s not what you have in mind, sorry, we don’t have anything else in stock.

All this can be seen as simply one material expression of the thaumaturgy we discussed a while back in these posts, the manipulation of basic drives through the endless repetition of emotionally charged symbols that serves to swamp the thinking mind and keep the individual penned in a narrow circle of self-defeating behaviors. From another perspective, though, the torrent of material goodies that comes surging through the channels of the consumer economy is the payoff for cooperating with the existing order of things; so long as you want the things you’re supposed to want, you can have them in fantastic abundance. It’s no exaggeration to point out that average middle class people in the industrial world just now have access to material benefits that emperors couldn’t expect to get five hundred years ago. That’s their share of the payoff for acquiescing in the status quo.

That’s the great strength of the "magician states" Ioan Culianu talked about in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, those nations—and if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly living in one—that maintain control over populations by thaumaturgy rather than by brute force. The thaumaturgy is backed up by very real material benefits for those who cooperate. Those who don’t—well, my own experience is a case in point; by the standards of most of humanity, I lead an extremely comfortable life, but most of the people I know are horrified by the thought that if it’s raining and I have errands to run, I put on a coat and open up an umbrella and go for a walk in the rain. They’d be more horrified still to learn that I deal with summer’s heat and humidity without an air conditioner, and respond to cold nights in winter by putting on a sweater rather than turning up the heat, but I don’t go out of my way to bring those details to their attention; my car-free life is enough of a shock for most of them.

Of course there’s more to it than that. The more of the payoff you refuse, the sharper the restrictions you have to live with. Now of course the less privileged classes in the industrial world, and the vast majority of people elsewhere, live with those restrictions every day of their lives, but suggest to those who don’t that they might find it useful to accept those restrictions, and I’m sure you can imagine the response you’re likely to get. Still, this is exactly what I intend to suggest, because there’s another factor in the situation, and it’s the one this blog has been discussing for more than five years now.

The entire operation of the modern magician state, after all, depends utterly on uninterrupted access to gargantuan supplies of cheap, highly concentrated energy. The considerable amount of energy that goes to power the communication technologies that get thaumaturgy to its target audiences is only a drop in the oil barrel of the whole energy cost of the system. A much larger amount goes to supply and maintaining the infrastructure of thaumaturgy, and of course the largest fraction of all goes into produce that torrent of goods and services mentioned above, the collective payoff that keeps those target audiences docile. Now factor in the depletion of concentrated energy sources—above all petroleum, which provides 40% of the world energy supply and close to 100% of energy used in transportation—and the proud towers of the magician state abruptly turn out to rest on foundations of sand.

To understand the consequences of that awkward fact, it’s important to get past the rhetoric of victimization that fills so much space in discussions of social hierarchy these days. Of course the people at or near the upper end of the pyramid get a much larger share of the proceeds of the system than anybody else, and those at or near the bottom get crumbs; that’s not in question. The point that needs making is that a great many people in between those two extremes also benefit handsomely from the system. When those people criticize the system, their criticisms by and large focus on the barriers that keep them from having as large a share as the rich—not the ones that keep them from having as small a share as the poor, or to phrase things a little differently, that keep their privileged share from being distributed more fairly across the population as a whole.

Map the factor of middle class privilege onto the history of protest over the last half century or so and some otherwise puzzling trends are easy to understand. The collapse of the 1960s protest movement here in America, for example, followed prompty on the abolition of the military draft in 1972. The real force behind that movement was the simple fact that the American middle classes were no longer willing to send their sons off to Vietnam, and were willing to use their not inconsiderable political clout to make that change of heart heard. It was indeed heard; the draft ended, the US extricated itself awkwardly from the Vietnam war, and the protest movement popped like a punctured balloon, leaving a minority of radicals who believed they were leading a revolution sitting among the shreds and wondering what happened. Attempts to launch American antiwar movements since that time have foundered on the unmentionable but real fact that middle class Americans by and large have no trouble at all reconciling themselves to war, as long as someone else’s kids are doing the fighting.

It’s in this light that last year’s spasmodic outbursts of protest from within the middle classes need to be understood. Since the peak of conventional petroleum production in 2005, economies around the world—above all the economies of the US and its inner circle of allies, which use more petroleum per capita than anybody else—have been stuck in a worsening spiral of dysfunction, and the middle classes have abruptly found themselves struggling to maintain their lifestyles. Their annoyance at that fact is easy to understand. From their point of view, after all, they’ve kept up their side of the bargain; they’ve bought what they were supposed to buy, borrowed when they were supposed to borrow, lined up obediently behind one or another of the approved political parties, and steered clear of all the hard questions. Now the payoff that was supposed to be their reward for all this, the payoff their parents and grandparents always got on time and that they themselves could rely on until now, is nowhere to be seen.

The payoff is nowhere to be seen, in turn, as a result of processes sketched out more than thirty years ago in a forgotten classic of political economy, Paul Blumberg’s 1980 study Inequality in an Age of Decline. Analyzing the downward spiral of the American economy in the 1970s—the last time, please note, that soaring energy prices clamped down on an industrial society—Blumberg showed that while a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling tide behaves in a much more selective fashion, as those groups with more political influence and economic clout are able to hang onto a disproportionate share of a shrinking pie at the expense of those with less.

The decades since Blumberg’s book appeared have only sharpened his argument. One after another, nearly every economic sector has undergone drastic reorganizations that slashed jobs, pay, and benefits for everyone below the middle class, and a growing number of people in the lower end of the middle class itself. Now that everyone below them has been thrown under the bus, the middle classes are discovering that it’s their turn next, as the classes above them scramble to maintain their own access to the payoffs of privilege. Having nodded and smiled while those further down the pyramid got shafted, the middle classes are in no position to mount an effective resistance now that they’re the ones being made redundant. I can almost hear a former midlevel manager in an unemployment line saying: "First they laid off the factory workers, but I said nothing, because I wasn’t a factory worker..."

Of course that’s not the way most people in today’s middle class like to think of things, and the gap between the reality of middle class privilege and the sort of rhetoric the Occupy movement spread last year—the claim that privilege applies only to the 1% of the population who are much richer than the middle class—opens an immense field of action for zealots and demagogues. Make the claim that you can keep the middle class supplied with its familiar comforts and status symbols and you’ll be able to count on a following in the years to come. The demand for that particular form of comforting nonsense is already booming, and an increase in the supply is already forthcoming; human nature being what it is, it’s probably not safe to assume that all those who provide the supply will be harmless nitwits.

This is where the capacity to envision profound change mentioned at the beginning of this essay becomes essential. In order to make sense of the future bearing down on us, it’s necessary to recognize that the privileged lifestyles of the recent past were the product of the chain of historical accidents that handed over half a billion years of stored sunlight to be burnt at extravagant rates by a handful of the world’s nations. Now that the supply is running short, those lifestyles are going away, and since the decline in petroleum production is gradual rather than sudden, the way it works out is that some people are losing access to them sooner than others. The automatic reaction on the part of most people facing this challenge is to cling to their familiar perks and privileges like grim death; the problem with that reaction, of course, is that the deathgrip in question very quickly becomes mutual.

The alternative is to let go of the perks and privileges before they drag you down. That may be the least popular advice I could offer, but it’s also among the most necessary. Over the years to come, as the real economy of goods and services contracts in lockstep with the depletion of fossil fuels, the fight over what’s left of the benefits of a failing industrial system is likely to become far more brutal than it is today. In the long run, that’s a fight with no winners. The alternative is to walk away, now, while you still have the time and resources to do it at your own pace.

This doesn’t mean, it probably needs to be said, pursuing the sort of green tokenism that’s become the latest form of conspicuous consumption in some circles on the leftward side of American life: the overpriced hybrid car parked ostentatiously in front of the suburban house with a few grid-tied solar panels on the roof, and the rest of it. It means giving things up: for example, doing without a car, getting rid of the suburban house and moving to a smaller, older, more efficient home two blocks from the bus route that will take you to work every day. It means accepting limits, not in some vague and abstract sense (which generally means accepting them for other people), but in the painfully specific sense that applies to your own choices. It means doing without things you want, during the difficult process of unlearning the mental automatisms that make you want them in the first place.

Unpleasant as it seems, this strategy has two massive advantages. The first is that you’ll quickly find yourself saving a great deal of money. Sell your car, and what you now spend on car payments, fuel, maintenance, insurance, and the rest of it, can go to something with a future. Apply the same logic to the other money-wasting habits of the middle class, and the money adds up fast. Since getting or staying out of debt, and providing yourself with the tools and skills you’ll need to get by in an age of decline, ought to be among your core priorities just now, that extra money is a valuable tool. So is the spare time you’ll have—most of those money-wasting habits are also time-wasting habits, remember.

The second advantage is one I’ve mentioned here before. If you’re going to be poor in the future, and you are, you might as well learn how to do it competently. It’s entirely possible to lead a life that’s poor in terms of money, material goods, and energy consumption, and profoundly rich—far richer than most contemporary lifestyles—in human values. If you’re going to do that, though, you’re going to have to learn how it’s done, and the only school where you can study that is that ancient institution, the school of hard knocks. If you start cutting your energy use and your material wants now, before you’re forced to do so, you can get past the hard part of the learning curve while you still have other options.

Thus it’s time, and maybe even past time, to wake up and walk away. Doing that, though, is going to require confronting one of the core superstitions of the modern world; we’ll discuss that next week.

End of the World of the Week #5

You might think that the habit of predicting the apocalypse would yield a bumper crop of self-fulfilling prophecies. Convince enough people that the end is nigh, and you might just get enough of them to do something crazy enough to make some approximation to the end of the world happen, right? Over the three thousand years or so since the apocalypse meme started on its long and merry way through human history, there have been some examples of that phenomenon—but even then, things generally haven’t turned out the way the prophets thought it would.

One instance worth remembering can be found in the War Scroll, one of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written right around the beginning of the Common Era in what is now part of Jordan, and was then a bleak corner of the Roman province of Judea. The War Scroll deserves its name; it’s a lurid advance account of the final conflict between the forces of light and the powers of darkness, and if you know your way around the Jewish apocalyptic literature of that period you know that by definition the powers of darkness spoke Latin and took their marching orders from the big cheese in Rome.

As apocalyptic literature goes, the War Scroll ranks well up there for sheer verbal color. "On the day that the Romans fall there shall be a battle and horrible carnage before the God of Israel, for it is a day appointed by him since ancient times as a battle of annihilation for the sons of darkness," it bellows. "The sons of light and the forces of darkness shall fight together to show the strength of God with the roar of a great multitude and the shouts of gods and men: a day of disaster."

It was prophetic harangues like this one, historians agree, that set the stage for the three Jewish revolts against Rome in 66, 115, and 132 CE. A great many Jewish people by that time convinced themselves that their Messiah would show up to lead them to triumph against Rome. That’s not how things worked out, though; the Romans won every round, and those on the other side who survived were either sold into slavery or driven into exile. The result was indeed "a day of disaster," but the disaster fell almost entirely on the heads of the Jewish people.

—story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Blood of the Earth, or Pulp Nonfiction

Some of my readers have wondered aloud why it is that I’ve devoted so much time in recent weeks to the current flurry of 2012 prophecies and their close equivalents. One reason is that there’s good reason to think that we’re going to hear quite a bit more about these prophecies in the months to come; unless I miss my guess, the apocalyptic bubble that’s inflating now, and will pop this coming December 22, is going to be one for the record books. Still, there’s at least one more reason to pay close attention to that bubble just now.

It’s not often remembered these days that the literal meaning of the word "apocalypse" is the revelation of something hidden. The term got its modern meaning because most of the prophecies that have been so labeled claim to reveal one hidden thing in particular, that is, the imminent end of history; but there’s another sense in which the word is even more appropriate, and that sense seems worth exploring just at the moment. The presence and popularity of apocalyptic beliefs, I’ve come to think, reveal something important about any society in which such beliefs occur.

Apocalyptic thinking, after all, doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has an extensive history behind it, a point I tried to make in my recent book Apocalypse Not, but it also has roots in the collective psychology of any society in which it becomes popular. Epochs awash in apocalyptic beliefs are also full of intense social stress, but there are stressful periods in which very few people spend their time feverishly getting ready for the end of the world. What seems to do the trick is a particular kind of stress—specifically, the kind that happens when the narratives a society uses to make sense of the world no longer work.

I’ve talked more than once in these essays about the immense role that narratives play in our mental and social lives. As human beings, we think with stories as inevitably as we eat with mouths and walk with feet; the stories we tell ourselves about the world define the way we make sense of the "blooming, buzzing confusion," in William James’ phrase, that the world out there throws at our sense organs. In what we are pleased to call "primitive societies," a rich body of mythology and legend provides each person with a range of narratives that can be applied to any given situation and make sense of it. Learning the stories, and learning how to apply them to life’s events, is the core of a child’s education in these societies, and a learned person is very often distinguished, more than anything else, by the number of traditional stories he or she knows by heart.

More technologically advanced societies often, though not invariably, move away from this, consigning their inheritance of stories to children—think, for example, of the role of fairy tales in nineteenth- and twentieth-century industrial societies—while narrowing down the range of stories adults are supposed to think with, until all that’s left are variations on one narrative. Serious thinking in these societies is by definition thinking that follows the accepted narrative. To be a respectable thinker in the heyday of the Roman Empire, for example, was by definition to filter the world through a narrative that described how original chaos was reduced to order, peace and prosperity under the paternal rule of a benevolent despot. Roman religion applied that narrative to the cosmos, Roman philosophy applied it to the relation between mind and body, and so on. The difficulty, of course, came when the world started throwing things at the Roman world that couldn’t be made to fit the narrative.

We’re in much the same situation today. Our core narrative, the story into which every serious thinker is required to fit his or her thoughts, is the narrative of progress—the story that defines all of human existence as a single great upward trajectory from the caves to the stars, and insists that the present is better than the past and the future will inevitably be better still. The problem with that narrative, of course, is that for most people the present is significantly worse than the past—standards of living for most Americans, for example, have been declining for more than thirty years—and the future promises to be even worse than the present. The narrative of progress has no room for that perception; in public life, the only way in which it’s possible to bring it up at all is to suggest that someone or something is to blame for the temporary lack of progress, and then offer a plan to get the obstacle out of the way so that progress can get under way once more.

Politicians, pundits, and serious thinkers of every kind have been making exactly this argument for a good many decades, though, and it’s started to sink in across a very broad range of the social spectrum that something has gone very wrong. There have been, so far, two main responses to this recognition. The surge in apocalyptic prophecies is one of them; the logical response when one narrative fails to make sense of the world is to look for another narrative that does a better job, after all, and the narrative of apocalypse—more precisely, the religious narrative of paradise, fall, and redemption in which apocalyptic prophecy has its natural habitat—is one of the very few alternatives that most people in industrial societies are willing to take seriously.

The second response to the recognition that the narrative of progress has failed is to rehash it over again in an even more extreme form. The poster child for this second option just now is a video titled Thrive, which is doing the rounds in the alternative scene as I write this. Those of my readers who are connoisseurs of meretricious nonsense may find it of interest, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else; we will all be hearing far too much like it over the years to come.

The basic message of Thrive is that we all ought to be living in a wonderful Utopian world, and would be doing so if evil corporate conspiracies weren’t suppressing the inventions that would have given us limitless free energy, cures for cancer and, well, pretty much anything else your heart desires. Evidence? We don’t need no steenking evidence—and of course, in an entirely pragmatic sense, Thrive doesn’t; all it has to do is hammer over and over again on a set of emotional hot buttons until the viewer’s ability to reason is overwhelmed, and if the video fails at this, it’s certainly not for want of trying. It’s a pity, in a way, that Thrive wasn’t yet in circulation when I wrote last year’s posts on thaumaturgy; it would have been educational to go through it scene by scene and talk about the crassly manipulative tactics it uses to get its effect.

Anyone interested in a thorough critique of Thrive should read Rob Hopkins’ cogent essay on the subject. For our present purposes, the point I want to make is that Thrive is an all-out effort to uphold the narrative of progress in the teeth of the facts. The narrative of progress says that we ought to have cheaper, more abundant energy with every passing year; in fact, the industrial world’s supplies of cheap abundant energy are running out fast, with predictable effects on price and supply, but those effects and their causes simply can’t be squared with the narrative of progress. Enter a flurry of accusations of conspiracy, which make it possible to insist that progress is still continuing but its fruits are being withheld from the people. The claims that cures for cancer are being suppressed has the same role with regard to the ongoing collapse of public health in America and elsewhere: we ought to be getting healthier, but we’re not, so a scapegoat has to be found to justify the widening gap between the narrative we prefer and the reality we get.

For all the problems with apocalyptic thinking, then, the prophets of apocalypse have at least gotten the first step right; having noticed that the narrative of progress doesn’t work any more, they’ve gone looking for an alternative, and it’s simply their bad luck that the alternative they’ve chosen doesn’t work either. Of course that raises a challenging question: if the narratives of progress and apocalypse don’t fit the world in which we’re living or the future that’s looming ahead of us, what narratives do?

Mulling over this question a few days ago, I started making a list of the more obvious features of the story in which we find ourselves at this point in the turning of history’s wheel. I encourage my readers to follow along, and see whether or not the answer that struck me occurs to them as well.

• We live in a world dominated by a vast, slowly decaying empire that gets quite literally superhuman powers by feeding on what we may as well call the blood of the Earth;

• That empire is ruled by a decadent aristocracy that holds court in soaring towers and bolsters its crumbling authority by conjuring vast amounts of wealth out of thin air;

• Backing the aristocracy is a caste of corrupt sorcerers whose incantations, projected into every home through the power of the blood of the Earth, keep the populace disorganized, deluded and passive;

• Entire provinces of the empire are ravaged by droughts, storms, and other disasters caused by the misuse of the Earth’s blood, while prophecies from the past warn of much worse to come;

• Meanwhile, far from the centers of power, the members of a scattered fellowship struggle to find and learn the forgotten lore of an earlier time, which might just hold the secret of survival...

It was more or less at this point that the realization hit: we have somehow gotten stuck, all seven billion of us, inside the pages of a pulp fantasy novel.

Those of my readers who are significantly younger than I am, and missed the vast outpouring of cheap fantasy novels that played so large and disreputable a role in shaping my youthful imagination, may benefit from a bit of history here. The runaway success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings in the late 1960s inspired publishers, who are after all in business to make money, to look for ways to cash in on the same market. One obvious gambit was to dredge up older fantasy fiction, and much of what was readily available was the pulp fantasy of the 1920s and 1930s, when H.P. Lovecraft’s overheated prose and Robert Howard’s overheated gonads filled the pages of Weird Tales magazine and the imagination of teenage America with musclebound barbarian heroes, tentacled horrors from three weeks before the beginning of time, and most of the other modern conveniences that have furnished fantasy fiction ever since.

Lovecraft and Howard were, alas, both dead when the late-Sixties fantasy explosion arrived, and so their ability to produce new works was somewhat limited. For a while, accordingly, it was possible for almost anybody who could write a literate English sentence to get into print as a fantasy novelist. Most of what flooded onto bookstore shelves in the years that followed was remarkably atrocious, with two-dimensional characters, engagingly bad prose, and utterly unconvincing plots duking it out in a loser-take-all contest. At the time, I wasn’t a stickler about quality—I was in the market for anything more colorful than the two-dimensional blandness of an American suburban childhood—but I did prefer those who could write well; Tolkien’s trilogy was one of those favorites, and so were the products of the busy pen of Michael Moorcock.

These days Moorcock counts as a serious novelist, having clambered up out of the mosh pit of pulp fantasy fiction into the rarefied balconies of literature. Back in the day, though, he was among the leading figures in the pulp fantasy revival. Better than any of his rivals, perhaps, Moorcock recaptured the flavor of the gloriously trashy Weird Tales era, penning sprawling sagas about a succession of heroes who were all iterations of one Eternal Champion, destined to hack his way forever through an infinity of parallel worlds. And the backgrounds against which Elric of Melniboné and Corum Jhaelen Irsei and Dorian Hawkmoon and the rest of them suffered, swaggered and fought? More often than not, they were vast and crumbling empires propped up by supernatural powers, ruled by decadent aristocrats who conjured various things out of thin air, full of corrupt sorcerers, whole provinces ravaged by disasters, and—well, I suspect you get the point by now.

Aside from the colorful details just mentioned, though, there was something else woven into the pulp fantasy of that era, Moorcock’s and otherwise. The worlds of pulp fantasy are by and large worlds in decline, strewn with immense ruins and scattered with artifacts no one can duplicate any more. The heroes of pulp fantasy are caught up in the undertow of decline, and their battles and quests are generally defined by legacies of the pre-decline past that have to be preserved or destroyed before the future can begin to take shape. Interestingly, that was as often true in the Weird Tales era; Conan the Barbarian, who was placed by his creator Robert Howard somewhere in the conveniently undocumented past between the fall of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history, spent much of his time dealing with the half-remembered legacies of the assorted drowned continents that Howard borrowed from Theosophical literature.

J.R.R. Tolkien, whose name I’ve invoked a couple of times already in this essay, worked with the same theme. There’s been a great deal of literary criticism of Tolkien’s work down through the years, but I don’t recall seeing any that’s talked about the extent to which Middle-Earth was influenced by the pulp fantasy of the 1920s and 1930s, which Tolkien (like his friend C.S. Lewis) read eagerly. One of the things that makes Tolkien’s work so inventive is the way that he plopped a bunch of hopelessly middle-class Englishmen dressed as hobbits into a world full of pulp fantasy clichés, complete with heroic survivors of drowned Atlantis—excuse me, Númenor—and an evil wizard-king who rides a tame pterodactyl into battle. Framing this arguably satiric dimension and the story as a whole there is, once again, the theme of decline: the twilight of the elves, the last hurrah of the heirs of Númenor, and the end of a sad and tangled story that had been winding down since the Elder Days. Middle-Earth is not a place where progress happens, any more than Conan’s Hyborian Age or age of the Young Kingdoms in which Elric wielded the black sword Stormbringer.

A brand of fiction commonly dismissed as sheer escapism, in other words, provides narratives more useful to the current state of the industrial world than the supposedly serious narrative of progress that still shapes every detail of contemporary public discourse. I’m not sure how far to take that point, though I have to admit that if Mabelrode the Faceless, Demon Lord of Chaos, were to be named as CEO of Citibank, I’m not sure I would be surprised. (On the other hand, maybe he already has been; it would explain a few things.) It would arguably have been better for us all if, when Edwin Drake and his men went to drill the first commercial oil well at Titusville, Pennsylvania back in 1859, they had found an ominous standing stone there carved with glowing runes:


Still, we missed that warning, and so have never quite gotten around to noticing that the world around us has much more in common with pulp fantasy fiction than it does with what passes for serious thought these days.

By this point, though, I suspect that you, dear reader, are wondering about one detail. If we’re actually stuck inside the pages of a trashy fantasy novel, as I’ve suggested, and all the details of the setting and the plot are in place, where is the protagonist? Who is the hero or the heroine who will turn the pages of the long-lost Gaianomicon, use its forgotten lore to forge a wand of power out of the rays of the Sun, shatter the deceptive spells of the lords of High Finance, and rise up amidst the wreckage of a dying empire to become one of the seedbearers of an age that is not yet born?

Why, you are, of course.

End of the World of the Week #4

Some apocalyptic prophecies have a more embarrassing outcome than others, but for sheer anticlimax it’s hard to beat the end of Thomas Müntzer’s prophetic career in 1525. Müntzer was a defrocked Catholic priest who converted to Martin Luther’s newborn movement in the heady early days of the Reformation, then went right on past Luther into that peculiar region of thought where it seems as though divine omnipotence needs a helping hand.

In 1520, Müntzer became convinced that the Kingdom of Heaven would appear promptly just as soon as the righteous, whom he identified with the peasants, rose up and slaughtered the wicked, whom he identified with everybody else higher up the social ladder. He spent five years wandering through Germany preaching his bloodthirsty gospel and publishing a series of pamphlets—the 16th-century equivalent of conspiracy websites—in which he denounced everyone who disagreed with him as slaves of the Antichrist. Most people dismissed him as a mental case, but he built up a small following.

In 1525, though, peasants in much of southern Germany rose up in revolt against the local barons, and Müntzer suddenly found himself in command of an army. After some preliminary skirmishes, his army and that of the nobility came face to face on May 15. In his speech to his troops before the battle, Müntzer insisted that he would catch the barons’ cannonballs in the sleeves of his coat. Moments afterwards, a rainbow appeared in the sky, and the peasant army cheered wildly, convinced that this omen proved that God was on their side.

The other side chose that moment to open up with all their artillery. In a matter of moments, those of the rebels who weren’t killed or wounded took to their heels and ran. Müntzer himself was caught hiding in somebody’s basement a few days later, and died an unpleasant death.

--story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Waiting for the Great Pumpkin

With the coming of the new year, predictions of what’s in store during the next twelve months are showing up here and there in the peak oil blogosphere: a feature of the season, really, as reliable as the icicles that hang from the roof’s edge outside the window of my study. Like the icicles, they’re enticing to look at; like the icicles, equally, a great many of them are guaranteed to drop to the ground and shatter at some point in the months to come.

That’s all the more remarkable in that, by and large, the peak oil community has been pretty much spot on when it comes to the general shape of the future. Five or ten years ago, it bears remembering, nobody else was predicting the sustained oil prices on the far side of $100 a barrel and the global economic gridlock that have become fixtures of the contemporary scene; the peak oil scene had that one nailed. A healthy skepticism toward whatever the current speculative bubble happens to be—tech stocks back in the days when the peak oil blogosphere was first getting under way, real estate in the runup to the 2008 crash, shale gas and shale oil now—has also been a common feature in the peak oil scene throughout its history, even when almost everyone else was cheering along the bubble du jour as the wave of the future.

Why, then, all the annual predictions that misfire—and in particular, why the same annual predictions that have misfired for years in a row? Why, for example, the relentless annual round of claims that the coming year will finally see a sudden and total economic collapse? That one’s been made time and again, often by the same bloggers, and the fact that each year goes by without anything of the kind happening somehow never manages to affect the next year’s confident insistence that this time around the wolves really, truly are about to eat all the sheep. It would be funny, really, except that pointing out the long string of failed predictions has become a standard rhetorical trick in the arsenal of those—either madmen or economists, to use Kenneth Boulding’s useful taxonomy—who want to insist on the possibility of limitless growth on a finite planet.

Now of course it’s only fair to point out that there are at least as many predictions on the other side of the picture that are still being recycled this year after an equivalent track record of failures. Hope springs eternal—or rather, as I suggested in last week’s post, the facile optimism of the privileged that masquerades as hope in too much of contemporary culture springs infernal—in the minds of the many bloggers who expect some shiny new technological gimmick to overturn the laws of thermodynamics and give us a glossy new future straight out of The Jetsons. The technological savior du jour, to be sure, changes even faster than the bubble du jour; we’ve seen ethanol, big wind turbines, and now shale gas touted as game-changing developments; neither ethanol nor wind turbines changed much of anything, of course, but when shale gas lands in the same category—as it will—there will be another candidate for the role

For that matter, those who insist that petroleum can’t run out because we want it so badly have had just as dubious a record, if not more so. I’ve reminded my readers several times already about Daniel Yergin’s 2004 prediction that new petroleum discoveries would keep the price of crude oil at a plateau of $38 a barrel, and he’s far from the only pundit who’s made claims that absurd and still had the media fawning at his feet. More generally, have you noticed that every couple of years, we get to hear some new claim that a vast new oil discovery somewhere is about to solve the world’s energy troubles? They’re as regular as clockwork or, these days, as speculative bubbles; the actual results, once the hype gives way to the business end of a drilling bit, range from modest to none at all; still, none of that slows down the missionaries of the religion of limitless petroleum.

It’s all uncomfortably reminiscent of the Peanuts character Linus, with his enduring faith that this year, despite all previous disconfirmations, the Great Pumpkin really will show up with candy for all on Halloween. Still, as I look back over the last dozen years or so, I notice a feature common to the predictions I’m discussing that Linus’ lonely vigil in the pumpkin patch doesn’t share. Is it just me, or do my readers also catch the note of increasing desperation in a good many of the latest round of familiar predictions?

On the cornucopian side of the picture, certainly, that note is hard to miss. One measure of this is the extent to which the most remarkable evasions of fact have been finding their way into the media of late when the subject of US energy production comes up. The example I’m thinking of just now is the claim, recycled by any number of supposedly serious pundits in the last few months, that the United States has become a net exporter of petroleum. As it happens this is—well, let’s be polite and call it an inaccuracy; a less courteous though arguably more accurate phrase would be "bald-faced lie." The US last year imported around two-thirds of the crude oil it used, just as it did the year before, and exported very little crude oil. Follow the footnotes, though, and they lead in interesting directions.

What has happened over the last few years, in fact, is that the US has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products. For many years before then, along with the vast floods of crude oil shipped in from abroad to feed domestic refineries, the United States imported a modest amount of petroleum products that had been refined overseas, and shipped a smaller amount of its own refineries’ products to other countries. As the current depression has tightened its grip on the country, though, consumption of gasoline and other petroleum products has dropped by more than ten per cent, and US refineries have found it profitable to sell more of their products overseas as the domestic market contracted. The total shift is not that large, and since what’s driving it is the ongoing contraction of the US economy, it might be better treated as a warning sign than a reason for fatuous misstatements.

Still, beyond the misinformation and disinformation, fatuous and otherwise, there’s a common thread running through all the various predictions I’m discussing here, and it’s a thread worth tracing. All of them—the claims that a crash is imminent, or that a technological breakthrough is imminent, or that an abundant new source of fossil fuels is imminent, or what have you—are at bottom claims that the troubled situation in which the industrial world currently finds itself can’t continue in anything like its present form. I’d like to offer instead the counterintuitive suggestion that it can, and most likely will.

What that would mean in practice can best be judged by thinking back a year or two, to the early days of 2011. The year that had just ended was a troubled time, with political turmoil, economic crises, a larger than usual number of natural disasters, and a pervasive (and in many cases quite accurate) sense on the part of many people that life was getting tougher and the solutions being offered by politicians weren’t solving much of anything. Once we got past the annual flurry of predictions about game-changing events of one kind or another, what actually happened? The game didn’t change at all. Instead, each of the difficulties I’ve just noted got a little worse. There was more political turmoil; the economic crises became somewhat more frequent and more severe; the number of natural disasters went up again—there were, as I recall, 32 weather-related disasters causing more than US$1 billion each in damages, which is a new record—and across the industrial world, people’s faith in their government’s capacity to do much of anything declined further.

That’s what happened in 2011. I’d like to suggest that when we take a backwards look in the early days of 2013, we will most likely see that that’s what happened in 2012, too: a slow worsening across a wide range of trends, punctuated by localized crises and regional disasters. I’d like to predict, in fact, that when we take that backward look, the US dollar and the Euro will both still exist and be accepted as legal tender, though the Eurozone may have shed a couple of countries who probably shouldn’t have joined it in the first place; that stock markets around the world will have had another volatile year, but will still be trading. Here in the US, whoever is unlucky enough to win the 2012 presidential election will be in the middle of an ordinary transition to a new term of office; the new Congress will be gearing up for another two years of partisan gridlock; gas stations will still have gas for sale and grocery stores will be stocked with groceries; and most Americans will be making the annual transition between coping with their New Year’s hangovers and failing to live up to their New Year’s resolutions, just as though it was any other year.

That is to say, nothing much will have changed, if by the word "change" you mean exclusively the kind of dramatic break with the existing pattern of things that so many people are predicting just now. From any other perspective, plenty will have changed. Official US statistics will no doubt insist that the unemployment rate has gone down—do you ever get the feeling that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the people who used to churn out all those preposterous propaganda claims for their government got hired by ours? I do—but the number of people out of work in the United States will likely set another all-time record; the number of people in severe economic trouble will have gone up another good-sized notch, and public health clinics will probably be seeing the first wave of malnutrition-caused illness in children. If you happen to have spent the year in one of the areas unfortunate enough to get hit by the hard edge of the increasingly unstable weather, you may have had to spend a week or two in an emergency shelter while the flood waters receded or the wreckage got hauled away, and you might even notice that less and less gets rebuilt every year.

Unless that happens, though, or unless you happen to pay close attention to the things that don’t usually make the evening news, you may well look back in the first days of 2013 and think that business as usual is still ongoing. You’d be right, too, so long as you recognize that there’s been a stealthy change in what business as usual now means. Until the peak of world conventional petroleum production arrived in 2005, by and large, business as usual meant the continuation of economic growth. Since then, by and large, it has meant the continuation of economic decline.

And the repeated predictions that the situation can’t go on? I’ve come to think that what motivates such predictions, and gives them their present popularity, is the growing sense of apprehension that it can go on—that the troubles currently pressing in on the industrial world could just keep on getting worse, day after day, year after year, for decades to come, following the same gradual curve that the industrial world followed in the days of its growth, but in reverse: descending into impoverishment and relocalization along some broad equivalent of the same bumpy course that brought the ascent to prosperity and global integration back in the day.

When you think about it—and in the back of their minds, I suspect, most people have thought about it—that’s really a terrifying prospect. What makes it most unnerving is that it’s not simply a matter of, say, having your standard of living ratchet down by five per cent every year, though there will be a fair amount of that. It’s far more a matter of never knowing when your number’s going to come up and land you out of work, out of money and out on the street, next to the others who landed there before you. How much of the popular sport of blaming the poor for their poverty, I wonder, and how much of the current pseudoconservative fad of insisting that the poor aren’t actually poor, comes from people who are desperately trying to convince themselves that their jobs are irreplaceable, their retirement funds secure, and the sudden dizzying fall into the ranks of the impoverished can’t possibly happen to them?

If the downward arc of business as usual in an age of decline is what we’re facing, though, that sort of tortured logic is a pretty fair guarantee of final failure. The only way out of the trap, as I’ve argued here rather more than once, is to accept a steep cut in your standard of living before it becomes necessary, as a deliberate choice, and to use the resources freed up by that choice to get rid of any debts you have, get settled in a location that has a fair chance of keeping a viable degree of community life going, and get the tools and learn the skills that you will need to manage a decent life in an age of spiraling decline. To those who cling to the idea that they can maintain their present lifestyles, admittedly, it’s hard to think of any advice less welcome, but the universe is in no way obligated to give us the future we want—even if what we want is a sudden blow that will spare us the harder experience of the Long Descent.

End of the World of the Week #3

When it comes to comedy, timing is supposed to be everything. The same could be said about apocalyptic prophecy, except that nobody seems to be able to get it right. The example I have in mind just now is Sulpicius Severus, who was a close friend of St. Martin of Tours. In his biography of the saint, written not long after Martin’s death, Sulpicius mentioned that seven years previously the holy bishop had told him privately that the Antichrist had already been born, and would begin his unstoppable rise to world power as soon as he reached adulthood. "Ponder," wrote Sulpicius, "how close these coming fearful events are!"

You might think that a saint of Martin’s caliber—he was a major figure in the church of his time, and has been credited with an impressive roster of miracles both while he was alive and since his death—must have had a sufficiently clear hotline to the Almighty to get such an important detail right. Still, that’s not the way it turned out. St. Martin died around 400 CE, and Sulpicius’ biography seems to have been written not long thereafter. The Antichrist would have been able to buy his first beer, in other words, around 414 CE at the latest; some 1600 years later, the faithful are still waiting for him to man up and put in an appearance.

—story from Apocalypse Not