Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Rumbling of Distant Thunder

I think most of my regular readers are aware that I spent last weekend at a peak oil event. There have been plenty of those over the last decade or so, but this one, The Age of Limits, was a bit unusual: it started from from the place where most other peak oil events stop, with the recognition that the decline and fall of industrial civilization is the defining fact of our time.

It’s ironic, to use no stronger term, that this should be the point at which so much discussion of peak oil stops, because it’s also the place where that conversation began some fifteen years ago, at the very dawn of today’s peak oil movement. Back then, as conversations about the limits to growth were getting started again for the first time since the twilight of the 1970s, most participants in those early discussions seem to have grasped that the industrial world would either rise to the challenge of peak oil and undergo the wrenching process of shortage and reallocation that a successful downshift of energy consumption would demand, or plow face first into the brick wall of resource limits and crash to ruin. The debates then were over which of these would be chosen.  At this point it’s painfully clear which way the decision has gone, but the discourse of peak oil by and large remains the same.

If you go to most peak oil events, as a result, you can count on a flurry of panels and lectures pointing out the reasons why our civilization’s attempt to extract limitless resources out of a finite planet won’t work, can’t work, and isn’t working. Depending on the event, you will also get either a flurry of panels and lectures talking about how to make buckets of money profiteering off the inevitable failure of that attempt, or a flurry of panels and lectures bickering about who’s to blame for the inevitable failure of that attempt, or a flurry of panels and lectures airily insisting that the inevitable failure of that attempt isn’t inevitable at all so long as we all have faith in whatever the fashionable alternative energy du jour or the equally fashionable movement du jour happens to be. (You might also get two or three of these at once, in which case the effect is even more schizoid than usual.)

What you won’t get is any serious discussion about what can be expected to happen on the downside of Hubbert’s curve, and how individuals, families and communities might be able to respond to that. At most, you might be lucky enough to find a late night discussion among three or four presenters and a dozen attendees at the hotel bar, sitting there with drinks in hand and talking about the uncomfortable and unfashionable realities that the event organizers have carefully excluded from the agenda. It was those late night discussions that provided part of the inspiration for The Age of Limits conference. What would happen, several of us wondered, if the themes central to those discussions were brought out of exile and put at the center of a collective conversation?

That’s more or less what The Age of Limits set out to do. How did it work?  By and large, remarkably well. Even on a quantitative level, it exceeded expectations; the organizers set their sights sensibly low, aiming for sixty attendees this first year, and kept publicity at an accordingly modest level. In the event, though, more than twice that number showed up, and launched a rolling conversation about decline, resilience, and survival that filled two full days and parts of two others.  The practical side of the conference ran smoothly, despite a couple of impressive spring thunderstorms, and the quality of the discussions was generally high; for me, certainly, it was a relief not to have to deal with more of the usual fearful insistence that X or Y or Z will let the current possessors of middle class privilege cling to their comfortable lifestyles, and to have the chance to talk instead about how those lifestyles are going to go away and what might be done to deal constructively with their departure.

Thinking back over the weekend, three points of crucial relevance for the project of this blog stand out.

The first and most basic is precisely the number of people who are ready to grapple with the end of industrial civilization: not as an abstract possibility to be shoved off on a conveniently distant future, not as an inkblot pattern on which to project one’s favorite apocalyptic fantasies, not as a bogeyman that can be used to stampede recruits into signing up for the greater glory of some movement or other, but as a simple and inescapable fact that is already shaping our lives.  Down the years since I first started trying to talk to other people about where our civilization is headed, that last attitude has been far and away the least common, and the frantic writhings with which so many people squirm away from thinking about that unthinkable reality have become wearily familiar.

One of the repeated pleasures of peak oil events is precisely that those of us who take that recognition seriously have the chance to share a meal or a couple of mugs of beer and talk openly about all the things you can’t discuss usefully with those who are still in the squirming stage. I mentioned in a post last fall the way that peak oil events function as a gathering of the tribe, but it would be more precise to call it a gathering of several tribes—the peak oil investment tribe, the environmental activism tribe, the alternative energy tribe, and so on.  It’s one of the oddities of the tribe to which I belong that it’s hard to give it a simple, straightforward name of that kind, just a clear sense of the trajectory our age is tracing out against the background of deep time, and it’s one of the less heavily represented tribes at most peak oil events. What set The Age of Limits apart is that it was specifically for this latter tribe, and the enthusiastic turnout in response to very muted publicity—little more than a few posts on blogs—shows me that the audience for such discussions is a good deal larger than I had any reason to think.

The second point that stands out is the extent to which people in that tribe—and, I suspect, across a broader spectrum of society as well—are hungry for meaningful discussions of one of the taboo topics of our age, the relation of spirituality to the shape of our future. That hunger came as a surprise to our hosts; Orren Whiddon, the founder and general factotum of the retreat center where the conference took place, responded with noticeable discomfort to my proposal to give a talk on peak oil and spirituality, and his mood was not improved when two of the other speakers, Carolyn Baker and Dmitry Orlov, wanted to address the same topic.  Still, all three talks went forward; I talked about the lessons that traditional spiritualities offer for understanding our predicament, Dmitry discussed religion as a mode of social organization that can sustain itself for millennia, and Carolyn explored collapse as an initiatory experience—and all three talks drew large and enthusiastic audiences.

It’s among the major failures of contemporary Western culture that the keepers of its religious traditions have so signally failed to deal with the core issues of our time.  There’s a history behind that failure, of course.  In what used to be the religious mainstream, well-meaning but clueless attempts to become relevant in the 1960s and 1970s led clergy  to replace authentic spirituality with a new definition of religious institutions as some sort of awkward hybrid of amateur social service agencies and moral lobbying firms, deriving their values from the contemporary nonreligious left rather than from any coherent sense of their own traditional spiritual commitments. Since the vast majority of Americans then and now are on the moderate-to-conservative end of the political spectrum, and have next to no patience with the liberal ideologies that drove this shift, the formerly mainstream denominations ended up with a fraction of their old membership and influence as parishioners abandoned them in droves for more conservative churches and synagogues.

Those latter, meanwhile, had just completed the same transformation in the other direction, surrendering their own  traditional commitments in order to embrace the political ideologies of the contemporary right. This is why so many of today’s supposedly conservative clergy are out there right now urging their congregations to vote for a Republican party whose platform could not be further from the explicit teachings of Jesus if somebody had set out to do that on purpose. Very few American religious groups have avoided falling into one or the other of these pitfalls.

That has had any number of unhelpful consequences, but the one relevant here is that either choice makes it effectively impossible for those who speak for religious institutions to say anything at all about the reality of our nation’s and civilization’s decline.  The denominations of theold mainstream are committed to what, without too much satire, could be described as the belief that everyone in the world deserves a middle class American lifestyle; those of the new conservative religiosity are just as rigidly committed to the claim that middle class Americans deserve, and ought to be able to keep, that lifestyle. Neither can begin to address the hard fact that this lifestyle and nearly everything associated with it are going away forever.

That’s the vacuum into which Carolyn, Dmitry and I ventured over this weekend. For two of us, it wasn’t a first venture by any means; Carolyn has been discussing the spiritual dimensions of collapse for years now, on her website and in several worthwhile books; as for me, after some years of uneasy avoidance and sidelong references, I let myself be lured into discussing the interface between my own far from mainstream spirituality and the realities of the age of peak oil, and that discussion ended up turning into a book of its own. For all I know, Dmitry has been working on his own take on religion and peak oil for longer still, but it was a surprise to me, just as I noted with interest that Jim Kunstler’s latest post includes an uneasy discussion of the potential role of emerging minority religions (that’s spelled "cults" in today’s standard English, which Jim uses) in reinventing a coherent society in the wake of our decline and fall.

There is a good deal more that can be said about the religious dimensions of peak oil, and a familiar sinking feeling tells me that I’m probably going to be saying some of it, once the current sequence of posts on the fate of American empire has been completed. My readers outside North America—particularly in Europe, where religion by and large plays a negligible role in public life—may be puzzled by that focus, but there it is; when European countries encouraged their religious minorities to cross the Atlantic, as a good many of them did in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, they pretty much guaranteed that North America would have a much livelier religious history from then on than they would. Religion is a major organizing force in American public life; each of the great shifts in American politics and society have been paralleled, and often preceded, by a corresponding shift in the religious sphere; that pattern is highly unlikely to be broken by the traumatic redefinitions of American public life looming up ahead in the near future, and there are good reasons to think that the religious shift this time around is going to be on the grand scale.

So that’s the second point that struck me this weekend. The third was subtler.  It didn’t get any space on the agenda, and rarely had a central role in the conversations, but it kept on popping up here and there in casual talk. One woman, for example, noted that the farm families in her area, conservative down to their bones, watched the bizarre spring weather this year with increasingly nervous faces and suddenly weren’t talking any more about how global warming was a myth; three other people nodded and chimed in with similar stories of their own.  A man commented in passing that people who used to dismiss his efforts toward personal sustainability as a waste of time aren’t doing that any more, and some of them are asking for gardening tips. Quite a few attendees mentioned their sense that more and more people seem to be aware, however vaguely, that the troubles of the present time cut deeper and offer fewer options than those of years and decades past.

Something has gone very wrong.  That’s the message that’s rumbling like distant thunder through the crawlspaces of the American imagination just now.  Something has gone very wrong, and those whose public claim to power is their supposed ability to manage things so that they don’t go wrong—the captains of finance and brokers of political power who move from photo op to press conference to high-level meeting and back again—don’t know how to fix it.

I don’t expect that sense to reach anything close to critical mass in the near future—though it will be interesting to note whether this year’s version of the traditional American game of electoral charades,  in which two indistinguishably airbrushed Demublican politicians pretend to be as different as possible until the moment the last voting booths close on Election Day, is able to whip up the same level of canned enthusiasm recent exercises of the same sort have managed. It could well take some years before the loss of faith in the institutions that define contemporary American life grows to the point at which it will become an unavoidable political fact.  For that matter, I have no hard evidence that this is happening at all, just stray bits of conversation heard in passing.  Still, those of my readers who have the opportunity might want to listen for the sound of thunder far off; if I’m right, the storm it’s heralding is going to be a whopper.

End of the World of the Week #24

The comets that lent their inkblot patterns to the apocalyptic frenzies discussed over the last two weeks have, of course, a more recent sibling, Comet Hale-Bopp, which swung through Earth’s skies in 1997. Like Comet Kohoutek and Halley’s Comet, Hale-Bopp attracted predictions of imminent doom, but one of those predictions came unpleasantly true when 39 identically dressed corpses, each with a five dollar bill and three quarters in its pocket, turned up at a posh San Diego mansion. The coroner’s verdict was death by mass suicide.

The backstory begins in the early 1970s, when a minor New Age figure named Marshall Applewhite had an out-of-body experience during a heart attack, and became convinced that he had been chosen for a grand destiny. He and one of the nurses who tended him, Bonnie Lu Nettles, created a belief system composed of equal parts Christianity, New Age thought, UFO beliefs, and science fiction. Under a variety of names—Human Individual Metamorphosis, Total Overcomers, and Heaven’s Gate were among the best known—their group proclaimed that its members would shortly be whisked away from a dying Earth on flying saucers; the fact that this never got around to happening, and repeated dates predicted by Applewhite and Nettles passed without incident, drove away some followers but proved no obstacle to the recruitment of others. After Nettles died in 1985, Applewhite led the group alone.

Enter Comet Hale-Bopp. First discovered by amateur astronomers in 1995, it became a focus of fringe speculation in the autumn of 1995 when a photograph allegedly showing an elongated object hovering behind the comet’s head got into circulation on the internet. Astronomers pointed out that the "object" was a 9th-magnitude star, but this was promptly dismissed by UFO believers, who preferred to trust the claims of psychics who announced that the object was a vast spaceship, and that the comet itself was going to crash into the Earth. When this news reached Applewhite, he announced to his followers that the spaceship had come to pick them up. This time, for reasons nobody living will ever know, he decided to make sure that he and his followers would leave the Earth one way or another.

The method of choice was a cocktail of poisons blended in pudding and washed down with vodka. Applewhite and his followers "discarded their physical containers" in three shifts, with those not yet poisoned tying plastic bags over the heads of those who were already dying. Applewhite and two of his female followers were the last to go; after he downed the pudding, they tied a bag over his head, and then took the poison themselves. Meanwhile, Comet Hale-Bopp went on to finish its loop around the sun and soared off into deep space, and the supposed alien spacecraft was never sighted again.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Night Thoughts in Hagsgate

There are times, at least for me, when the fate in store for industrial society can be seen with more than the usual clarity.  I’m thinking just now of the time I looked out a train window and saw an abandoned factory, not yet twenty years old, with foot-high saplings rising incongruously from the gutter around the roof; or of another time, in a weekend flea market here in Cumberland, when I found a kid’s book on space travel I’d loved as a child, flipped through the pages, and found myself face to face with the gap between the shining future we were supposed to have by now and the mess that was actually waiting for us when we got here.

I’m pondering another of those moments now, but the trigger this time isn’t a trackside glimpse or a memento in a repurposed warehouse. It’s the current flood of news stories, opinion pieces, and public statements by pundits of various kinds, all focused on one theme—the supposed irrelevance of peak oil.

Those of my readers who have managed to miss that torrent so far may find it helpful to spare a glance at this typical example of the species, which was forwarded to me by one of this blog’s readers (tip of the archdruidical hat to Hereward).  The author, Timothy Worstall, is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, and a specialist in rare earth elements; he starts off by complaining that he doesn’t understand peak oil, goes on to demonstrate that fact in impressive detail, and finishes up with the sort of whopper that normally earns an F on a freshman paper in Geology 101. (No, Mr. Worstall, kerogen shales such as the Green River formation are not at all the same thing as oil-bearing shales such as the Bakken formation, and nobody yet has a viable way to extract oil from kerogen shales; I trust you provide better information to clients who ask your advice about rare earth elements.)

I wish I could say that this is an extreme example, but it’s not. Worstall has at least grasped the fact that peak oil has to do the rate at which oil can be produced, which is more than most critics of the concept manage, and his confusion between kerogen shales and oil-bearing shales—though it could have been cleared up by five minutes of research—is common among people who are poorly informed about petroleum geology.  Look at other efforts to dismiss peak oil and you’ll find worse.  The question I’d like to raise is why this outpouring of misinformation and denial happens to be in full flood right now.

It’s a very odd time for peak oil to be dismissed, all things considered. Back in the late 1990s, when the first peak oil researchers began to exchange data and forecasts, several leading figures in the newborn movement made very straightforward predictions about what was going to happen. They predicted that global production of crude oil would peak in the near future, and decline thereafter; they predicted that this would cause the price of oil and petroleum products to skyrocket, imposing severe costs on the global economy and triggering economic contraction; some, though this was controversial, predicted that attempts to replace petroleum with alternative energy sources would fail because of net energy and other noneconomic factors.

These assertions were rejected with quite some heat by the few people outside the scene who bothered to notice. Critics of peak oil insisted, first, that increasing demand for petroleum would make additional capital available for the hunt for new oil fields, which would of course be found, and thus allow petroleum production to grow indefinitely; second, that if the price of oil did rise sharply, that would simply make other energy sources viable, releasing a flood of energy onto the market that would drive prices back down; and third, that human ingenuity, the free market, or some other allegedly omnipotent force would certainly be able to find limitless new energy resources and prove all the pessimists wrong.

A decade and a half later, it’s instructive to see how those predictions turned out. The short form is that the peak oil researchers were correct while their critics were shoveling smoke. The production of crude oil peaked in 2005; the price of oil spiked to levels that pundits insisted it could never reach, and has moved raggedly upward since the initial spike and crash to today’s value well above $100 a barrel; the global economy proceeded to lurch into serious trouble, and remains in a state of perpetual crisis that nobody in charge seems to be able to understand or fix; and a series of boomlets in hydrogen, ethanol, algal biodiesel and other much-hyped alternative energy sources rose and crashed as it turned out that no matter what oil cost, they cost more. 

The current bubble in shale gas is to some extent an exception to that last rule, but it’s hardly the bonanza that the media likes to claim.  Partly, shale gas production is simply a side effect of the fact that natural gas liquids, which occur in some shale gas deposits, can be sold as a petroleum substitute at very good prices; partly, shale gas has morphed in recent years into what Wall Street aficionados call a pump-and-dump operation—a bit of dubious marketing in which operators boost the price of a stock, then sell it at the inflated price to suckers, who are sure the price will go up further and  are therefore left holding the bag when it goes down instead. (I trust none of my readers have put their life savings into shale gas companies.)

Still, there’s another factor to the shale gas bubble, and also to the boom in oil-bearing shale that has filled so many glowing headlines in recent years, and will fill so many gloomy headlines a few years further on. Both are being ballyhooed as game-changing breakthroughs, even though they’re nothing of the kind—hydrofracturing ("fracking") has been a common practice for forty years, and the Bakken shale was discovered long ago.  The fracking boom is simply one of the many ways in which the world is scraping low-grade fuels out of the bottom of the barrel, just as peak oil researchers have predicted it would. Their breakthrough status is entirely a product of hype. Behind that hype, I’ve come to think, and the comparable hype that surrounded the hydrogen economy, corn ethanol, and all the other failed pseudosolutions to our predicament, lies a very specific motive: the desire to find some reason, however fatuous, to insist that it’s all right to keep on wallowing in the benefits of today’s wildly unsustainable energy and resource consumption, instead of getting ready for the far less lavish world that’s going to follow in short order.

That motive shapes a dizzyingly large share of the collective conversation of our time. Consider the book review I critiqued in last week’s post. One of the bits of rhetoric the reviewer used to dismiss my suggestion that social change has to be founded in personal change was the claim that "you can’t end rape [just] by not raping anyone." Perhaps so, but as one of my readers pointed out (tip of the archdruidical hat here to Ozark Chinquapin), someone who claimed to oppose rape would normally be expected to demonstrate that commitment by, at the very least, not raping anyone; an antirape movement that claimed that rapes committed by its members didn’t matter, because it was working to end rape everywhere, would rightly be dismissed as an exercise in extreme hypocrisy. Yet you’ll hear the identical logic from people in a good deal of the environmental movement, who insist that they can’t be bothered to lighten the burden their lifestyles place on the planet because they’re going to save the Earth all at once.

Work out the practical implications of that argument, in other words, and it amounts to a justification for clinging to the comforts and privileges of the modern industrial lifestyle even at the expense of one’s supposed ideals. That’s also the implication of the denunciations of peak oil I discussed at the beginning of this post, of course, and there are plenty of other ways of cloaking that same desire. Whether you expect solar power, thorium reactors, algal biodiesel or some other exciting new energy source to save the day; whether you anticipate the imminent arrival of the Rapture, the Singularity, the Space Brothers, a world-ending cataclysm, or a great leap of consciousness to some higher plane; or whether you simply tell yourself, as so many Americans do these days, "I’m sure they’ll think of something"—if you look at that belief honestly, dear reader, doesn’t it work out to an excuse that lets you claim that it really is okay for you to keep enjoying whatever you see as your share of the goodies churned out by the industrial machine?

It’s here, in turn, that I glance down and see the void opening up beneath the foundations of that same machine—and it’s also here that I find myself remembering a harrowing detail from one of the favorite books of my teen years, Peter Beagle’s brilliant fantasy The Last Unicorn.

I’m not even going to try to sketch out the plot of the book as a whole.  The point that’s relevant here centers on a place, the town of Hagsgate, and its people, who are very rich. They live in the kingdom ruled by King Haggard, the villain of the story; they profit mightily from his rule, and are exquisitely careful not to notice anything that bears too closely on the terrifying evil that lies at the heart of his realm. They are also, as it happens, under a witch’s curse.

It occurs to me that some of my readers may not be familiar with the structure and function of curses. (What do they teach children these days?) The sort of thing you get in bad modern remakes of fairy tales, where someone inoffensive gets burdened with a dire fate that would not otherwise befall them, is strictly amateur stuff.  Professionals know that the curses that matter are the kind that unfold by their own inexorable logic from the actions and attitudes of the accursed.  The witch or wizard who finds it  necessary or appropriate to pronounce a curse doesn’t have to make anything happen; he or she simply says aloud the unmentionable realities of the situation, states the necessary consequences, and leaves. The efforts of the accursed to avoid falling victim to the curse, without actually changing the things that make the curse inevitable, then proceed to drive the curse to its fulfillment.

The witch who cursed Hagsgate was a thoroughly competent professional. Here’s what she said:

You whom Haggard holds in thrall,
Share his feast and share his fall.
You shall see your fortune flower
Till the torrent takes the tower.
Yet none but one of Hagsgate town
May bring the castle swirling down.

You’ll notice that, like any good curse, this one includes an escape hatch:  skip Haggard’s feast and you skip the fall, too. Beagle’s story doesn’t mention anyone who used the escape hatch, but there will have been somebody.  There always is; whether we’re talking about Númenor, the City of Destruction, the warren of the shining wire, or some other place where a curse is at work, someone’s going to walk away.  That sounds very heroic in retrospect, but that’s not the way it works in practice. In practice, those who walk away are as often as not weeping hysterically, torn between the fear of giving up everything they know and the knowledge that leaving is the only choice left for them, and trying without much success not to listen to the taunts or feel the stones flung by those who stay behind.

If, as Ursula LeGuin says in one of her best stories, they seem to know where they are going, it’s because "anywhere but here" is an easy course to chart at first. Mind you, some never even make it out the city gates; some come stumbling back to town a few days or weeks or years later; some are never seen again, and pebbles will grow into moss-covered boulders before anybody finds out exactly what happened to them; still, there’s always one, or a few, or nine tall ships sailing from Andunië with stormwinds howling in the rigging, who leave and do something less foredoomed with their lives.

It’s the ones who stay behind, though, who are more relevant to the point I want to make. It’s very easy to stay behind. Early on, when walking away is an easy thing, the threat of the curse is so far off that it’s seductive to think you can stay in Hagsgate for just a little while longer and still escape.  Later on, you’ve come to enjoy the practical benefits that being a citizen of Hagsgate has to offer; you’ve got personal and financial ties to the place, and so you come up with ornate theories packed with dubious logic and cherrypicked data to convince yourself that the curse isn’t real or that it will only affect other people. As the curse begins to work, in turn, you start making excuses, insisting that you did everything you could reasonably be expected to do, and it’s all somebody else’s fault anyway.  Finally, when the full reality of your fate stares you in the face and your last chance of escape is almost gone, comes the terrible temptation to treat the price you’re about to pay as a measure of the value of what you’ve gotten by staying in Hagsgate, and you cling to it ever more frantically as it drags you down.

Now of course a witch didn’t actually put a curse on industrial society—at least, if one did, I haven’t heard about it—but fairy tales keep their hold on our collective imagination because they contain a wealth of valid wisdom, wrapped up in a compact and memorable form.  To say that there’s a curse on industrial society is simply to use an archaic metaphor for a point I’ve been discussing in these essays since The Archdruid Report began six years ago, which is that the consequences of industrial society’s mismanagement of its relations with the planet will not go away just because we don’t want to deal with them. That metaphor has a range of relevant features, and one of them is that any effective response to the curse—or, if you will, the predicament of our time—has to begin by taking stock of the ways that each of us, as individuals, contributes by our own attitudes and actions to the mess we’re in, and then making appropriate changes.

After six years, I shouldn’t even have to say that daydreaming about running off to some conveniently unaffordable eco-homestead in the country doesn’t count.  Unless you’re in a position to do that, and the vast majority of us aren’t, that’s simply another evasion. What’s required instead is the less romantic but far more productive task of adapting in place: figuring out how, living where you live now, you can place much less of a burden on the biosphere, and help other people do the same thing. It probably has to be said that perfection isn’t a reasonable expectation here—there’s a long learning curve, and our culture and built environment place significant obstacles in the way—but a great deal can be done nonetheless  That can easily lead into activism of various kinds, for those who feel called to do that specific kind of work; it can also lead in plenty of other constructive directions.

Still, that’s not a popular message just now, and I’m guessing that it’s going to become a great deal more unpopular as industrial civilization stumbles deeper into crisis. It doesn’t require a witch’s curse to make people cling frantically to exactly those things that are destroying them and their future, just the psychology of previous investment and a few other standard self-defeating habits of the human mind.  Still, there’s the choice: share the feast and share the fall, or wake up and walk away. Which will you do?

End of the World of the Week #23

Comet Kohoutek, the otherwise inoffensive deep-space snowball that provided the excuse for David Berg’s 1973 prophecy of imminent doom, was hardly the first comet to become the center of a frenzy of misinformation centered around a supposed threat to Earth’s very survival. Sixty-three years earlier, Halley’s Comet had a great many people trembling in imminent expectation of apocalypse, and it was all because of a nifty new scientific advance.

Spectroscopy, the process by which light can be used to determine the chemical composition of things in outer space, was the hot new research technology in astronomy in those days, and as Halley’s Comet came swinging along its accustomed orbit in early 1910, astronomers turned their telescopes on the tail, hoping that light passing through it would give them a glimpse of what comets are made of. The new technology performed to spec, and one of the chemicals that was detected in the tail was cyanogen, (CN)2, a poisonous gas. Meanwhile, astronomers tracking the comet’s orbit announced that the Earth would pass through the comet’s tail on May 20 of that year. 

The contemporary equivalent of the tabloid press in America jumped on those details, combined them, and announced that the comet’s tail was a vast cloud of poison gas that would exterminate life on Earth as the planet passed through it. There was quite a respectable panic in some American cities as May 20 came close. America being the land of the entrepreneurial spirit, some public-spirited souls began manufacturing "comet pills" that people could take to protect themselves from those billowing clouds of cyanogen, and they sold extremely well.

As it happens, the tail of a comet isn’t a billowing cloud of anything; it’s not far from hard vacuum, and the molecules of cyanogen in it were so widely scattered that they never posed a threat to anything at all.  May 20 passed, nothing happened, and Halley’s Comet wheeled back out to the far reaches of the solar system, leaving the manufacturers of "comet pills" richer and their customers, hopefully, a little bit wiser.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Twilight of Protest

Over the last four months or so, as this blog has sketched out the trajectory of empires in general, and then traced the intricate history of America’s empire in particular, I’ve been avoiding a specific issue.  That avoidance hasn’t come from any lack of awareness on my part, and if it had been, comments and emails from readers asking when I was going to get around to discussing the issue would have taken care of that in short order.  No, it’s simply a natural reluctance to bring up a subject that has to be discussed sooner or later, but is guaranteed to generate far more heat than light.

The subject?  The role of protest movements in the decline and fall of the American empire.

That’s an issue sufficiently burdened with tangled emotions and unstated agendas that even finding a good starting place for the discussion is a challenge. Fortunately I have some assistance, courtesy of Owen Lloyd, who is involved with an organization called Deep Green Resistance and recently wrote a  review of my book The Blood of the Earth. It’s by no means a bad review. Quite the contrary, Lloyd made a serious effort to grapple with the issues that book tried to raise, and by and large succeeded; where he failed, the misunderstandings were all but inevitable, given the differences between his views and mine.  Thus it’s all the more striking that his review points up so precisely the reasons why protest movements have by and large been spinning their wheels in empty air for thirty years, and will almost certainly continue to do so while America’s empire crashes and burns around them.

The point that matters here is the review’s denunciation of one of the central points of the book, which is that those who want to change the world need to start by changing their own lives.  According to Lloyd, we don’t have time for that, since the biosphere is in dire peril; what’s needed instead are the standard tools of contemporary activism—"direct action, community building, and outreach," in his convenient summary. His reasoning is logical enough, as far as it goes; if your house is on fire, after all, it’s a little late to install sprinklers and smoke alarms.  If the situation is as urgent as Lloyd claims, all other considerations have to take a back seat to an all-out effort to deal with the immediate crisis with the most effective means available.

It’s a common enough claim in the contemporary activist community; Derrick Jensen had an article in Orion Magazine a few years back making essentially the same argument.  Still, there’s a problem with that argument, because the responses Lloyd, Jensen, and other activists are promoting here have been standard across the spectrum of activist groups for more than three decades now, and that’s more than enough time to see how well they work. The answer?  Well, let’s be charitable and say "not very well."

For years now, leading environmentalists have been bemoaning how much ground is being lost year after year, and how little the environmental movement has been able to do even to slow that down.  They are quite correct in that assessment, of course.  It’s standard these days to insist that this simply shows the power differential between the corporate interests that profit from environmental destruction and the citizen groups that are trying to fight them.  That argument seems convincing, too, so long as you do what most people these days are taught to do, and ignore the lessons of history.

Glance back to a slightly earlier period and at least one of those lessons stands out in bold relief. In the 1970s, environmental activists facing equally powerful and well-funded corporate interests built a mass movement and forced through landmark legislation.  In the United States, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and a bevy of less famous but equally important environmental bills crashed through a wall of corporate opposition and became the law of the land. That sort of success is something that today’s environmental activists can only daydream about, and it was accomplished using the same tools that activists use today—with one important addition: the environmental activists of that time recognized that the most effective way to advocate any given change was to make that change in their own lives first. That awareness was not limited to the environmental movement; it was pioneered by the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, in fact, who turned it into a core principle of their movement—"the personal is political"—and leveraged it efficiently to bring about dramatic if still incomplete gains in women’s rights. They recognized, as did many other activists in those years, that if your lifestyle supports a system, and depends on that system, any efforts you may think you’re making to force significant change on that system will be wasted breath.

It will be wasted breath because most people, reasonably enough, want to see that there’s a life worth living on the other side of the changes your activist movement wants to make, and the best way to give them a glimpse of that life is to enact it yourself. It will also be wasted breath because most people have a tolerably good nose for hypocrisy, and are highly familiar with the kind of demagogy that calls on everybody else to make sacrifices and get by with less so the demagogue doesn’t have to do so. Talk to Americans who didn’t support either the climate change movement or its corporate opposition, and you’ll find that for a good many of them, it was when word of Al Gore’s air-conditioned mansion and frequent-flyer miles got around that they decided that global warming was yet another manufactured threat, meant to stampede people into acquiescing with somebody’s political agenda.

Finally, it will be wasted breath because if the system you think you want to change is also the system that supplies you with a comfortable middle class lifestyle, with all the comforts and conveniences that such a lifestyle supplies, the changes you will push the system to make will pretty reliably be limited to  those that will not affect your continued access to the lifestyle, comforts and conveniences in question. The Breton peak oil blogger Damien Perrotin has commented amusingly on the influence of what, in France, are called bobos—that is, bourgeois bohemians (the acronym works equally well in both languages), members of the liberal upper middle classes. Bobos are terribly eager to see themselves as the saviors of the world—that’s the bohemian side—and will do absolutely anything to fulfill this role, so long as it doesn’t require them to give up any of the benefits of their privileged status—that’s the bourgeois side.

I hope the term catches on in this country, because we have a lot of bobos over here, too. Last week’s discussion of captive constituencies has a special relevance in any discussion of the species Bobo americanus, because being active in the captive constituency of some otherwise mainstream political faction is a very popular way to play the role of saving the world without risking disruption to the system that gives bobos their privileged status. There are also substantial personal rewards available for those who take leadership positions in captive constituencies, and help keep them captive. It’s a role bobos are well qualified to fill, especially those who come from the upper end of the class hierarchy and so have the connections and skills for the job.  That’s where you get the executives of mainstream environmental groups who draw six-figure salaries, maintain cordial relationships with corporate sponsors, and show an obvious willingness to settle for whatever scraps may fall from the tables of wealth and power onto their corner of America’s unwashed kitchen floor.

Still, the bobo-ization of American radicalism is not limited to such obvious cases.  When you hear activists loudly insisting that it’s possible to save the world without being an ascetic—and I’m sorry to say that, yes, that well-worn trope turned up in the Owen Lloyd book review cited above—you’re hearing the echoes of bobo influence, in the form of the popular but profoundly wrong notion that it must somehow be possible to maintain today’s unsustainable lifestyles on a sustainable basis.  That’s not going to happen, for reasons that reach right down into the laws of thermodynamics; no amount of handwaving is going to make it happen; and the sooner we get used to living with a lot less, the less damage we will do to ourselves, each other, and the Earth as the industrial economy sputters to a halt.

Now of course that suggestion is anathema to the existing order of things, in America and elsewhere. It’s usually anathema in a declining imperial society. James Francis’ useful study Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World chronicles how the imperial Roman government came to treat the asceticism of Stoic and Neoplatonic philosophers as an unendurable threat to its authority. They were quite correct to do so; a system that maintains itself in power by bribing the lower classes with panem et circenses and the middle and upper classes with the more lavish entertainments chronicled in Petronius’ Satyricon has no convenient lever with which to control those who have no interest in these things.

Thus it’s probably safe to assume that there will be no effective opposition to the status quo in this country until some movement arises that in practice—not just in theory—embraces an essentially ascetic approach.  My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the first movement to do so will be a revived Marxism. I’m no fan of Karl Marx, and even less a fan of the various ideologues who filled out the framework of his system, but Marxism has features that will give it powerful appeal in the decades ahead.  It gives the poor someone to blame for their misfortunes, and does so in a far more detailed manner than (say) the vague rhetoric of the Occupy movement; it is among the few ideologies that manage to fuse a rigorous intellectual tradition with a utopian future vision of religious intensity; and it has a strong ascetic element—the figure of the Marxist revolutionary, lean, passionate, doctrinaire, and contemptuous of material goods except insofar as they might help further the cause, was a common social type in Europe for close to a century.

Marxism also has an advantage just now that no amount of money could buy it: the extraordinary campaign of unintended propaganda that the Republican party is currently carrying out on its behalf.  Right now, even the most moderate and revenue-neutral attempts to use the powers of government for the benefit of American citizens are being lambasted by the GOP as communism.  It’s an embarrassing admission of intellectual poverty—one gathers that the American right spent so long belaboring the Red Peril that it really has no idea what to say now that communism isn’t around any more—but it also guarantees a familiar kind of backlash. Fundamentalist churches that spend too much time denouncing Satanism, complete with lurid descriptions of Satanic living replete with wild parties and orgiastic sex, get that kind of backlash; that’s why they so often find that they’ve merely succeeded in making devil worship popular among local teens.

In the same way, if the Republicans succeed in rebranding, say, public assistance and food safety laws as Marxist, the most likely result of that campaign will be to convince a great many Americans of otherwise moderate political views that Marx might have had something going for him after all. As suggested above, I don’t consider this a good thing; in theory, Marxist revolution leads to the glorious worker’s paradise of the future via the inevitable workings of the historical dialectic, but in practice the dictatorship of the proletariat reliably turns into just another dictatorship, with the usual quota of gulags and unmarked mass graves.  Still, in a country where most people are frighteningly ignorant of history, and are being driven to the wall by a corrupt and spectacularly mismanaged imperial economy in headlong decline, it’s unpleasantly unlikely that this point will be remembered.

Still, other forces are pushing American society toward a crisis that its existing political and economic arrangements are unlikely to survive, and the rehabilitation of Marxism is unlikely to proceed fast enough to reach any sort of critical mass before that crisis hits in earnest.  It’s probably a safe bet that the more mainstream groups will increasingly side with the established order of things—I’ve long suspected that before all this is over with, the Sierra Club will come out in favor of strip mining the national park system so long as it’s done in, ahem, an environmentally sensitive way. Outside the bobosphere, things are much less clear, for the twilight years of a disintegrating political system tolerably often create a fiercely Darwinian environment for ideologies and political movements, in which the only thing that matters is which set of beliefs and personalities can build the strongest coalition at the right time, absorb or marginalize the largest fraction of opposing groups, and make the most successful bid for power.  As that bubbling cauldron of competing belief systems boils over in violence and systemic disruption, it’s anyone’s guess who or what will come out on top.

Whoever ends up more or less in charge of what’s left of the United States of America when the flames die down and the rubble stops bouncing, though, will have to face a predicament far more difficult than the ones encountered by the winners in 1932, or 1860, or for that matter 1776. All three of these past crises happened when the United States was still a rising power, with vast and largely untapped natural resources, and social and economic systems not yet burdened with the aftermath of a failed empire; the winning side could safely assume that once the immediate crisis was resolved, the nation would return to relative prosperity, pay off its debts, and proceed from there.

That won’t be happening this time around. When the crisis is over, whatever form it takes, the United States—or whatever assortment of successor nations end up dividing its territory between them—will be a shattered, bankrupt, resource-poor Third World failed state (or collection of failed states) that will likely have to struggle hard even to regain basic levels of political and economic stability. That struggle will be pursued in a world in which energy and other resources are getting scarcer each year, energy- and resource-intensive technologies are being abandoned by all but a very few rich and powerful nations, and unpredictable swings in temperature, rainfall, and other climatic and ecological factors make life a good deal more difficult for everyone.  In that not-so-far-future America, the comforts and conveniences most of us now take for granted will be available only to the rich and powerful, if they can be had by anyone at all.

That’s the world our choices over the last three decades or so have been preparing for us, and for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. In such a world, the people who will have the most to offer their communities, their societies, and the biosphere that supports all our lives will be those who have the courage, now, to walk away from the consumer economy and its smorgasbord of dubious pleasures, and learn, now, how to get by with less, use their own capacities of body and mind, and work with the patterns and processes of nature.  For the time being—specifically, until we get close enough to the crisis period that even the most nonviolent challenge to the existing order calls down massive violence in response—protest can still accomplish goals worth pursuing, especially if activists wake up once again to the power of personal example; over the longer run, though, it’s the change on the individual, family, and community level that so many of today’s activists reject as pointless that have the most to offer the world.

End of the World of the Week #22

Comets are fascinating things, and they have an ancient reputation as omens of trouble. Still, you might expect the industrial world in 1973 to have responded with a little less frenzy to the appearance of the much-ballyhooed Comet Kohoutek. It was discovered by Czech astronomer Luboš Kohoutek on March 7 of that year, while it was still a very long way from the sun, and back-of-the-envelope calculations suggested that it might put on a spectacular show.  The mass media proceeded to lose the word "might" and fill headlines with claims that Kohoutek would be "the comet of the century."

That was all it took to catch the attention of the apocalyptically minded. David Berg aka Moses David, leader of the Children of God sect, did the most to publicize a Kohoutek apocalypse; his proclamation  that the comet would destroy the world in January of 1974, printed on bright orange flyers, was handed out by his followers to people all over North America. (I think I may still have one in a file box in the basement.) All through the last months of 1973, the comet had something of the same cachet that the supposed end of the Mayan calendar has today.

As it turned out, though, the prophets were wrong, and so was the media. Far from being "the comet of the century," Comet Kohoutek turned out to be a very modest spectacle indeed, barely visible in the night sky above my backyard—I think we were too close to the streetlights or something. Fans of apocalyptic prophecies quickly found some new prediction of doom to discuss, and the phrase "Comet Kohoutek" had a brief moment of fame as a synonym for "dud."

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Descent into Stasis

Last weeks’ post attempted, with the help of the ancient Greek philosopher Polybius, to trace out the trajectory that democracies—and in particular the United States—tend to follow across time. The pattern that Polybius outlined, and that American politics has cycled through three times so far in the course of its history, begins with most of the nation’s political power concentrated in a single person, and follows the diffusion of power to the point that the entire political system settles into a gridlock only a massive crisis can break.  Just now, according to that model, we are in the stage of gridlock, and thus of maximum diffusion of power.

Now of course this interpretation flies in the face of the standard narrative that surrounds power in America today. Both sides of the political spectrum these days like to insist that too much power is in the hands of the other side, at least when the other side is in the White House or has a majority in Congress. The further from the mainstream you go, the more strident the voices you’ll hear insisting that some small group or other has seized absolute power over the US political system and is running things for their own advantage. The identity of the small group in question varies wildly—it’s hard to think of anyone who hasn’t been accused, at some point in the last half century or so, of being the secret elite that runs everything—but the theory that some small group or other has all the power that everybody else seems to lack is accepted nearly everywhere. Whether it’s Occupy Wall Street talking about the nefarious 1%, or the Tea Party talking about the equally nefarious liberal elite, the conviction that power has been concentrated in the wrong hands is ubiquitous in today’s America.

It’s an appealing notion, especially if you want to find somebody to blame for the current state of affairs in this country, and of course hunting for scapegoats is a popular sport whenever times are hard. Still, I’d like to suggest that an alternative understanding explains much more about the current state of the American political system. The alternative I have in mind is that the political system is lurching forward like a driverless car along a trajectory set by the outdated policies of an earlier time, and that just now, nobody is in charge at all. Unpopular though this way of thinking about power in America is, I suggest that it makes more sense of our predicament than the more popular notion of elite control.

It’s important to understand what my proposal means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. A great many of those who insist that power in America is in the hands of a small elite offer, as evidence for the claim, the fact that a relatively small number of people get an obscenely large share of national income and wealth, and they’re quite correct. The last three decades or so have seen America turn into something close to a Third World kleptocracy, the sort of failed state in which a handful of politically well-connected people plunder the economy for their own benefit. When bank executives vote themselves and their cronies million-dollar bonuses out of government funds while their banks are losing billions of dollars a year, just to name an obvious example, it’s impossible to discuss the situation honestly without using words like “looting.”

Still, the ability to plunder one corner of a complex system is not the same thing as the ability to control the whole system, and the freedom with which so many people pillage the institutions they’re supposed to be managing could as well be understood as a sign that there’s no center of power willing or able to defend the core interests of the US empire against death by financial hemorrhage.  The only power the executives of, say, Goldman Sachs need is the power to block any effort to stop them from stripping their bank to the bare walls for their personal enrichment, or to cut them off from the access to tax dollars that’s made that process so lucrative.  That much power they certainly have—but it’s a kind and a degree of power shared by many other influential groups in America just now.

Consider the defense industries that are busy profiting off the F-35 fighter, an impressively corrupt corporate welfare program currently chewing gargantuan holes in the defense budgets of the US and several other nations.  Years behind schedule and trillions of dollars over budget, the F-35 is by all independent accounts a dog of a plane, clumsier and more vulnerable than the decades-old fighters it is supposed to replace. The consortium of interests that profit from its manufacture have the power to keep the process chugging along, even as the delays stretch to decades and the cost overruns head toward lunar orbit, and again, that’s all the power they need. It’s all the more telling that they’re able to do so when the F-35 project is directly opposed to crucial US interests: having the US and its allies equipped with a substandard fighter, at a time when China and Russia are both busily testing much better planes, risks humiliating defeat in future wars—and yet the program moves steadily forward.

Examples of the same sort of thing can be multiplied endlessly, and they aren’t limited to corporations. Cities and counties all over the United States, for example, are being driven into bankruptcy by the cost of public-sector salaries and benefits that politically influential unions have extracted from vulnerable or compliant local politicians. Equally, other countries—China and Israel come to mind—have learned to make use of the diffusion of American power for their own interests.  It doesn’t matter how blatantly the Chinese manipulate their currency or thumb their noses at intellectual property rights, for instance; so long as they keep their lobby in Washington well funded and well staffed, they’re secure from any meaningful response on the part of the US government. I’ve come to suspect that the only reason the US government is down on Iran is that religious scruples keep the Iranian government from buying immunity the way the Chinese do; they’ve got the petroleum and therefore the money, and could doubtless have their own influential lobby capable of blocking hostile legislation in Congress, if only they didn’t let their ideals get in the way. 

The power exerted by each of these groups is by and large a veto power.  They may not be able to get new policies through the jungle of competing interests in Washington, a task that is increasingly hard for anyone to manage at all, but they can prevent policies that are not in their interest from being enacted, and they can defend any policy already in place that benefits them or furthers their ability to loot the system. They have that veto power, in turn, because no one in contemporary America has the power to get anything done without assembling a temporary coalition of competing power centers, each of which has its own agenda and each of which constantly has its hand out for the biggest possible share of the take.

Not every potential power center in American politics functions as a veto group, mind you. A great many groups have become captive constituencies of one of the existing power centers, and thus lost whatever independent influence they might have had. Compare the way that the Democratic Party has seized control of the environmental movement to the way that the Republicans have played the same trick on gun owners.  In both cases, the party can ignore the interests of its captive constituency until elections come around, and then bombard the constituency with propaganda insisting that the other party will do horrible things to the environment or the Second Amendment if they win the election. The other party duly plays its part in this good cop-bad cop routine by making threatening noises about gun rights or environmental issues at intervals. It’s an efficient scam, and it keeps environmentalists voting for Democrats and gun owners voting for Republicans even though neither party gives more than lip service to the issues that matter to either group.

To the members of the captive constituencies, in turn, all this simply feeds the belief that there must be somebody in the system who has the power they lack; after all, they keep on voting for the right people,  and yet none of their policies ever get enacted! Since very few gun owners ever sit down and share a couple of beers with environmentalists, there’s rarely an opportunity for them to compare notes and notice that neither side is getting what it wants, and the same gimmick is being used on both. The one place on the political continuum where this sort of comparison does take place is out on the fringes, where the extreme left increasingly bends around to touch the extreme right, and the paranoiac beliefs endemic to the farther shores of American politics turn the whole thing into yet another proof that the Freemasons or the Jews or David Ickes’ imaginary space lizards run everything after all.

Just as the ability to plunder one part of a system does not equal control over the whole system, though, the ability to manipulate a handful of politically naive pressure groups does not equal the ability to manipulate the whole system. It’s precisely because no one group has an effective monopoly on power that political parties and other power centers have to resort to complicated and expensive gimmickry to hammer together the temporary coalitions that enable them to cling to whatever power they have and, on increasingly rare occasions, force through some policy or other that favors their interests.

As the system settles ever more deeply into gridlock, in turn, policies put in place in previous decades become increasingly resistant to change. Even those that turned out to have severe flaws will inevitably get support from those who profit from them, and from employees of government bureaucracies whose jobs would go away in the event of a policy change.  Machiavelli pointed out a long time ago that reforms always face an uphill struggle, since those who benefit from the status quo can be counted on to fight fiercely to hold on to what they’ve got, while those who might benefit from reform have less incentive to fight for gains they know perfectly well they may never see; factor in the mutual support among power centers who have a mutual interest in keeping the status quo fixed in place, and you have a recipe for exactly the sort of stasis the United States sees every seventy or eighty years, as the cycle discussed in last week’s post approaches its end.

How the endgame plays out is a matter of more than academic interest.  In 1860 and 1932, a political system frozen in gridlock and incapable of anything like a constructive response to crisis finally hit a crisis that could not be evaded any longer, and the system shattered. In the chaos that resulted, a long-shot candidate with a radical following was able to pull together enough support from the remaining power centers and the people in general to win the White House and force through changes that redefined the political landscape for decades to come. That’s a possibility this time around, too, but a possibility is not a certainty, and nowhere is it written in stone that a crisis of the sort we’re discussing has to have a happy ending.

The range and scale of the crises facing the United States as it finishes the third lap around the track of anacyclosis, to begin with, pose a far more substantial challenge than the ones that punctuated the cycle in those earlier years.  In 1860, as we’ve seen, the question was which of two incompatible human ecologies would dominate the North American continent; in 1932, it was the simpler though still challenging matter of how to pry the dead fingers of a failed economic ideology off the throat of the nation.  This time, the United States faces two immense and parallel difficulties, neither one of which has the sort of straightforward solution that Lincoln and Roosevelt respectively had to hand.

The first difficulty, as I’ve discussed at length in these posts, is that the global empire established by the United States in the wake of the Second World War is coming apart. The American way of empire – the custom of leaving the administration of subject countries to puppet governments drawn from local elites – was cheaper than the traditional approach of subjugation and rule by an imperial viceroy, but it turned out to be more vulnerable to change and less directly profitable to the imperial government:  American corporations profited mightily from the wealth pump directed at Latin America, for example, but very little of that money ended up in the coffers of the US treasury, where it could help cover the costs of empire.

As the American empire falters, in turn, rival powers expand their own military capacities and apply pressure wherever they can get away with it, short of being drawn into a premature war; the US military reacts with the same sort of stereotyped response that characterized the latter years of the British empire, preparing to fight bygone wars with ever more ornate and overpriced technology, while its most likely opponents show every sign of asking the hard questions about basics that lead to sudden revolutions in military practice. When this has happened in the past, the results have almost never been good for the established imperial power, and there’s no reason to think that things will be noticeably different this time around.

Meanwhile America’s “empire of time,” its once-immense energy resource base, has been drawn down at breakneck rates for more than a century and a half. Recent handwaving around shale gas reserves has served mostly to pump up the price of drilling company stocks, and enabled a certain number of rich men in influential positions to get away with another round of looting; we’ve all heard the strident claims that the United States will become an energy exporter sometime very soon, but the numbers don’t even begin to add up, and it’s a safe bet that a few years down the road shale gas will have gone the way of ethanol and all the other energy sources that were allegedly going to replace petroleum and keep the industrial age running smoothly ahead.  The American economy is utterly dependent on very large quantities of petroleum; so is the American military; drastic changes, going far beyond the baby steps involved in manufacturing a few electric cars or running a naval vessel or two on biodiesel, would have to get started well in advance to cushion the end of either dependency, and those changes are not taking place.

The consequences of the end of these two empires can’t be dealt with on the battlefield, as the long debate over the shape of America’s human ecology was, and it can’t be dealt with by jerry-rigging a set of temporary expedients to overcome the mismatch between real wealth and a dysfunctional financial system, as the crisis of the Great Depression was.  It will require massive changes in every aspect of American life, starting with a steep decline in standards of living and the forced abandonment of privileges most Americans think of as theirs by right. That would be an immense crisis at the best of times, and these are not the best of times; our political system has spent the last thirty years trying to evade exactly these issues, while sinking further and further into stasis, and it’s our luck that the crisis seems to be arriving just as American politics freeze up completely.

That might result in the kind of systemic shock that brings another long-shot candidate with a radical following into the White House, and catalyzes immense natonal changes. It might also result in the more extreme form of systemic shock that shatters a nation into fragments. In the weeks to come we’ll be discussing both those possibilities, and others.

End of the World of the Week #21

It’s necessary to turn to history books to get the details on most of the apocalyptic prophecies discussed here and in Apocalypse Not, but there’s at least one important exception – and no, I’m not talking about Harold Camping. Nearly all of my readers will remember those giddy months toward the end of 1999 when a great many people expected industrial civilization to grind to a halt because an older generation of computer software used two digits, rather than four, to keep track of the year, and risked freezing up when “99” turned to “00” amd a variety of internal functions geared to incremental changes in date went haywire.  That was the Y2K crisis—or, more precisely, noncrisis—and it has a lesson that not everyone who lived through the nonarrival of that noncrisis may have grasped.

I had a certain advantage in grasping it, as I lived in the high-tech hotbed of Seattle and knew a lot of people in the computer industry. Some of them knew as much about the Y2K problem as anybody alive, but you’d just about have to schedule an appointment with them to hear what they had to say about it, because they were working as much overtime as they wanted, and raking in money at a dizzying pace. Those who still remembered enough from their college classes in COBOL and other obsolete computer languages were rewriting code for banks, bureaucracies, and big corporations; those who didn’t were generally installing brand new Y2K-compliant PC systems and networks for smaller firms that had decided to scrap their existing hardware altogether.

Quite a lot of people spent those last months of 1999 cowering in fear or gloating over the imminent demise of everybody else.  For computer geeks, though, the Y2K noncrisis was an extraordinarily profitable time, and every round of dire warnings in the media was followed by panicked phone calls to computer firms from more businesses eager to save their companies from the “Millennium bug.”  I can’t say for sure that those dire warnings were part of a deliberate marketing strategy, but they certainly functioned that way, and they drove the single largest boom the US computer industry had ever seen.

Mind you, I used an old and noncompliant PC for writing, and didn’t have anything like the money I would have needed to buy an up-to-date machine. Instead, a few weeks before the new year, I went into the software and reset the internal calendar to the equivalent date in December 1949, and then went through the rollover to January 1, 1950 without any trouble at all.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Democracy's Arc

The troubling news about methane releases from the Arctic ocean that was the focus of last week’s post on The Archdruid Report belongs, as I mentioned then, to the wider trajectory of industrial society’s decline and fall, not to the more specific theme I’ve been developing here in recent months. The end of America’s global empire takes place against the background of that wider trajectory, to be sure, and core elements of the predicament of industrial civilization bid fair to play a crucial role as the United States backs itself into a corner defined by its own history. Still, important as the limits to growth are just now, there’s much more at work in the endgame of American empire.

Thus this week’s post will plunge without further ado from the austere heights of atmospheric chemistry to the steaming, swampy, snake-infested realities of American politics. It’s a jarring shift in more ways than one, since everybody basically agrees on what methane is, what the atmosphere is, and so on; the terms that frame debates about the greenhouse effect and anthropogenic global warming are clearly defined and bear some relationship to observable fact. We don’t have that advantage in  politics. In particular, the possibility of an intelligent conversation about American politics is hamstrung by the spectacular distortions imposed on basic terms by nearly everybody involved.

The worst example, and the one I propose to explore this week, is democracy. It’s hard to think of a word that’s bandied about more freely, but I keep on waiting for Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride to stand up and say his classic line: “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

On both ends of American politics, for example, democracy is for all practical purposes defined as a political system in which a majority of voters will support whatever group happens to be using the word at that moment. That definition can be seen at work most clearly in the shrill insistence, common these days over much of the political spectrum, that the United States isn’t a democracy; after all, the argument runs, if the United States was a democracy, the people would vote in favor of their own best interests, which of course just happen to be identical with the platform of whoever’s talking. The fact that this claim can be heard from groups whose ideas of the people’s best interests differ in every conceivable way—for example, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street—simply adds to the irony.

Behind the rhetoric is a conception of democracy that has nothing in common with the real world, and everything in common with the Utopian fantasies that have come to infest contemporary political discourse. When Americans talk about democracy or, with even richer irony, “real democracy,” they usually mean a system that does not exist, has never existed, and can never exist—a system less real than Neverland, in which the free choices of millions of individual voters somehow always add up to an optimal response to the challenges of a complex age, without ever running afoul of the troubles that inevitably beset democratic systems in the real world.

Here’s an example.  Nearly all those who insist that the United States is not a democracy cite, as evidence for that claim, the fact that our elections are usually corrupt and sometimes fraudulent. Now of course this is quite true; the winner in an American election is generally, though not always, the candidate that has the most money to spend; the broader influence of wealth over America’s media and political parties is pervasive; and election fraud is as much a part of American culture as baseball and apple pie—the Democrats who waxed indignant about the rigged election returns from Florida in 2000, for example, by and large seem to have gone out of their way to forget about the voting machines at the bottom of Lake Michigan that put John F. Kennedy in the White House in 1960.

Does this prove that the United States isn’t a “real democracy”? Not at all. This is how democracies actually function in the real world. Under a system of representative democracy, the people who have wealth and the people who have power are by no means always the same; some of those who have wealth want power, some of those who have power want wealth, and the law of supply and demand takes it from there. That extends all the way down to the individual voter, by the way. Give citizens the right to dispose of their votes freely, and a significant number of them will use that freedom to put their votes up for sale—directly, as in old-fashioned machine politics, or indirectly, by voting for candidates who provide them with goodies at the public expense. There’s no way to prevent that without depriving citizens of the right to vote as they choose, and you can’t eliminate that and still have a democracy. 

By this point I suspect some of my readers may be wondering if I’m opposed to democracy. Quite the contrary, I’m very much in favor of it; despite its problems, it beats the stuffing out of most systems of government. It has three benefits in particular that you don’t usually get in other forms of government.

First, democracies tolerate much broader freedom of speech and conscience than countries ruled by other systems. I can critique the personalities, policies, and (as here) fundamental concepts of American government without having to worry that this will bring jackbooted thugs crashing through my door at three in the morning; in nondemocratic countries, critics of the government in power rarely have that security. Equally, I can practice the religion I choose, read the books I prefer, carry on conversations with people in other democratic countries around the world, and exercise a great many other freedoms that people in nondemocratic countries simply don’t have. These things matter; people have fought and died for them, and a system that makes room for them is far and away preferable to one that doesn’t.

Second, democracies don’t kill anything like as many of their own citizens as most other forms of government do.  The history of the twentieth century, if nothing else, should have been enough of a reminder that authoritarian governments come with a very high domestic body count. All governments everywhere kill plenty of people whenever they go to war, and all governments everywhere go to war when they think they can get away with it; imperial democracies also tend to build up very large prison populations—the United States  has more people in prison than any other nation on Earth, just as Britain in its age of empire shipped so many convicts to Australia that they played a sizable role in the settling of that continent.  Still, all other things being equal, it’s better to live in a nation where the government doesn’t dump large numbers of its own citizens into mass graves, and democracies do that far less often, and to far fewer people, than nondemocratic governments generally do.

Finally, democracies undergo systemic change with less disruption and violence than nondemocratic countries do. Whether we’re talking about removing a failed head of state, coping with an economic depression, dealing with military defeat, or winning or losing an empire, democracies routinely manage to surf the wave of change without the sort of collapse such changes very often bring to nondemocratic countries. The rotation of leadership hardwired into the constitutions of most successful democracies builds a certain amount of change into the system, if only because different politicians have different pet agendas, and pressure from outside the political class—if it’s strong, sustained, and intelligently directed—very often does have an impact: not quickly, not easily, and not without a great deal of bellowing and handwaving, but the thing does happen eventually.

All three of these benefits, and a number of others of the same kind, can be summed up in a single sentence: democracy is resilient. Authoritarian societies, by contrast, are brittle; that’s why they can’t tolerate freedom of speech and conscience, why they so often murder their citizens in large numbers, and why they tend to shatter when they are driven to change by the pressure of events. Democratic societies can also be brittle, especially if they’re newly established, or if a substantial fraction of their citizens rejects the values of democracy; still, all other things being equal, a democratic society normally weathers systemic change with less trauma than an authoritarian one.

One measure of this greater resilience, ironically enough, may be seen in the lack of success radical groups generally have when they try to delegitimize and overturn an established democratic society.  Rhetoric that would bring a brutal response from authoritarian governments get little more than a yawn from democratic ones. A few years back, the phrase “repressive tolerance” was the term for this on the American far left. I doubt those who denounced it under this label would have preferred to be dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, shot through the head, and tumbled into an unmarked grave; the rest of us, certainly, have good reason to be thankful that that’s not the way America generally deals with its dissidents.

That aside, there’s equally good reason to want a system in place just now that can handle systemic change with the smallest possible amount of trauma and violence, because we’re headed for a great deal of systemic change in the years and decades ahead. Part of that is due to the wider trajectory of industrial society I referenced toward the beginning of this essay, part of it is due to the ongoing decline of America’s global empire, but a good deal of it comes from a different source

The Greeks, who had a penchant for giving names to things, had a convenient label for that source: anacyclosis. That was the moniker coined by the Greek historian Polybius, who chronicled the conquest of Greece by the Romans in the second century BCE. He noted that the squabbling city-states of the Greek world tended to cycle through a distinctive sequence of governments—monarchy, followed by aristocracy, followed by democracy, and then back around again to monarchy.  It’s a cogent model, especially if you replace “monarchy” with “dictatorship” and “aristocracy” with “junta” to bring the terminology up to current standards.

A short and modernized form of the explanation—those of my readers who are interested in the original form should consult the Histories of Polybius—is that in every dictatorship, an inner circle of officials and generals emerges.  This inner circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the dictator or, more often, simply waits until he dies and then distributes power so that no one figure has total control; thus a junta is formed. In every country run by a junta, in turn, a wider circle of officials, officers, and influential people emerges; this wider circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the junta, and when this happens, in ancient Greece and the modern world alike, the standard gambit is to install a democratic constitution to win popular support and outflank remaining allies of the deposed junta. In every democracy, finally, competing circles of officials, officers, and influential people emerge; these expand their power until the democratic system freezes into gridlock under the pressure of factionalism or unsolved crisis; the democratic system loses its legitimacy, political collapse follows, and finally the head of the strongest faction seizes power and imposes a dictatorship, and the cycle begins all over again.

It can be educational to measure this sequence against recent history and see how well it fits. Russia, for example, has been through a classic round of anacyclosis since the 1917 revolution: dictatorship under Lenin and Stalin, a junta from Khrushchev through Gorbachev, and a democracy—a real democracy, please remember, complete with corruption, rigged elections, and the other features of real democracy—since that time. China, similarly, had a period of democracy from 1911 to 1949, a dictatorship under Mao, and a junta since then, with movements toward democracy evident over the last few decades. Still, the example I have in mind is the United States of America, which has been around the cycle three times since its founding; the one difference, and it’s crucial, is that all three stages have taken place repeatedly under the same constitution.

A case could be made that this is the great achievement of modern representative democracy—the development of a system so resilient that it can weather anacyclosis without cracking. The three rounds of anacyclosis we’ve had in the United States so far have each followed the classic pattern; they’ve begun under the dominance of a single leader whose overwhelming support from the political class and the population as a whole allowed him to shatter the factional stalemate of the previous phase and impose a radically new order on the nation. After his death, power passes to what amounts to an elected junta, and gradually defuses outwards in the usual way, until a popular movement to expand civil rights and political participation overturns the authority of the junta. Out of the expansion of political participation, factions rise to power, and eventually bring the mechanism of government to a standstill; crisis follows, and is resolved by the election of another almost-dictator.

Glance back over American history and it’s hard to miss the pattern, repeating over a period that runs roughly seventy to eighty years.  The dictator-figures were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, each of whom overturned existing structures in order to consolidate their power, and did so with scant regard for existing law. The juntas were the old Whigs, the Republicans, and the New Deal Democrats, each of them representatives of a single social class; they were overthrown in turn by Jacksonian populism, the Progressive movement, and the complex social convulsions of the Sixties, each of which diffused power across a broader section of the citizenry. The first cycle ended in stalemate over the issue of slavery; the second ended in a comparable stalemate over finding an effective response to the Great Depression; the third—well, that’s where we are right now.

There’s no shortage of crises sufficient to tip the current system into its final stalemate, and no shortage of people in the political class who show every sign of being willing to give it that final push. The great difficulty just now, it seems to me, is precisely that fashionable contempt for democracy as it actually exists that I addressed earlier in this essay.  In 1860, that habit was so far from finding a place in the political dialogue that the constitution of the Confederate States of America was in most respects a copy of the one signed at Philadelphia a long lifetime before. In 1932, though a minority of Americans supported Marxism, fascism, or one of the other popular authoritarianisms of the day, the vast majority who put Roosevelt into the White House four times in a row expected him to maintain at least a rough approximation of constitutional government.

That’s much less true this time around.  Granted, there’s less public support for overtly authoritarian ideologies—I expect to see Marxism make a large-scale comeback on the American left in the next few years, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post—but as Oswald Spengler pointed out almost a century ago, in the endgame of democratic societies, it’s not the cult of ideology but the cult of personality that’s the real danger. As the Russian proverb warns, it’s never a good idea to let the perfect become the enemy of the good; in our time, as a growing number of Americans insist that America isn’t a democracy because it doesn’t live up to their fantasies of political entitlement, it’s all too possible that one or more mass movements could coalesce around some charismatic figure who offers to fix everything that’s wrong with the country if only we let him get rid of all those cumbersome checks and balances that stand in his way.  How many of the benefits of democracy I listed above would survive the victory of such a movement is not a question I would like to contemplate.

End of the World of the Week #20

Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age got plenty of favorable reviews when it saw print in Italian in 1972, and English and other languages in 1973. As apocalypses go, Vacca’s was as lively as it was up to date. He argued that the industrial societies of his time had reached so high a level of complexity and interconnectedness that they were riding for a very hard fall; all those linkages and complexities meant that cascading crises that would bring one system crashing down after another, leaving the people of the industrial world struggling for survival without transport, power, food, or water, had become a statistical inevitability and would begin by 1985.

Except, of course, that it didn’t. Ironically, Vacca, a computer scientist, missed the fact that the complexity whose risks he described wasn’t an independent variable; it was being driven by the rise of exactly the computer technology that was making high complexity manageable, and would make it even more manageable in the decades ahead. Despite the failed prediction, or possibly because of it, The Coming Dark Age marked the coming of age of a flurry of apocalyptic prophecies that relied, as Vacca’s did, on the questionable claim that extreme worst case scenarios sooner or later have to come true. We’ll discuss another of these next week.

—for more stories like this, see my book ApocalypseNot