Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Cussedness of Whole Systems

There’s an interesting divergence between the extreme complexity of the predicament that besets contemporary industrial civilization, on the one hand, and the remarkable simplicity of the failures of reasoning that have sent us hurtling face first into that predicament, on the other. Nearly all of those failures share a common root, which is the inability—or at least the unwillingness—of most people in the modern world to pay attention to the natural cussedness of whole systems.

The example I have in mind just at the moment runs all through one of the most lively nondebates in today’s media, which is about peak oil.  I call it a nondebate because those who are trying to debate the issue—that is to say, those people who have noticed the absurdity of trying to extract infinite amounts of petroleum from a finite planet—are by and large shut out of the discussion.  Those who hold the other view, for their part, aren’t debating.  With embarrassingly few exceptions, instead, they’re merely insisting at the top of their lungs that peak oil has been disproved by some glossy combination of short term factors, speculative bubbles, and overblown hype about the future, and can we please just get back to our lifestyles of mindless consumption and waste?

Behind the cornucopian handwaving, though, is a real debate, one that those of us who are aware of peak oil need to address. The issue at the heart of the debate is the shape of the curve that will define future petroleum production worldwide, and the reason that it needs to be addressed is that so far, at least, that curve is not doing what most peak oil theories say it should do.

The original version of the peak oil curve, of course, is the one sketched out by M. King Hubbert in his famous 1956 paper. Here it is:
That’s the model that underlies most of today’s peak oil analyses.  It’s a good first approximation of the way that oil production normally rises and falls over time on any scale—a well, a field, an oil province, a country—provided that external factors don’t interfere.  The problem here, of course, is that oil production doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and so external factors always interfere.  It helps to rephrase that last point in systems terms: the production of oil takes place within a whole system and is always influenced by the state of the system. That’s why at best, the history of oil production from any given well, field, oil province, or country only roughly approximates the ideal shape of the Hubbert curve, and many real-world examples stray all over the map in their wanderings from the zero point at the beginning to the one at the end.

It’s the failure to appreciate this point that has left a good many peak oil analysts flailing when global petroleum production failed to decline according to some predicted schedule. Anyone who’s been following the peak oil blogosphere for more than a few years has gotten used to the annual predictions—they tend to pop up like mushrooms every December—that the year about to begin would finally see rates of petroleum production begin dropping like the proverbial rock. Tolerably often, in fact, the same predictions get recycled from one year to the next, with no more attention to the lessons of past failure than you’ll find in one of Harold Camping’s Rapture prophecies.  Even among those who don’t go that far out on a limb, the notion that global production of petroleum ought to start dropping steeply sometime soon is all but hardwired into the peak oil scene.

The peak of global conventional petroleum production arrived, as I hope most of my readers are aware by now, in 2005. The seven years since then have given us a first glimpse at the far end of Hubbert’s curve, and so far, it’s not following the model. Conventional petroleum production has declined, and the price of oil has wobbled unsteadily up to levels that mainstream analysts considered impossible a decade ago; that much of the peak oil prophecy has been confirmed by events.  Overall production of liquid fuels, though, has remained steady and even risen slightly, as high prices have made it profitable for unconventional petroleum and a range of petroleum substitutes—tar sand extractives, natural gas liquids, biodiesel, ethanol, and the like—to be poured into the world’s fuel tanks.

It’s only fair to note that this was among the predictions made by critics of peak oil theory back when that was still a subject of debate. The standard argument economists used to dismiss the threat of peak oil was precisely that rising prices would make other energy sources economical, following the normal workings of supply and demand.  For all its flaws—and I plan on dissecting a few of those shortly—that prediction was rooted in the behavior of whole systems. 

The law of supply and demand, in fact, is one manifestation of a basic principle of systems theory, a principle pervasive and inescapable enough that it’s not unreasonable to call it a law.  The law of equilibrium, as we might as well call it, states that any attempt to change the state of a whole system will set in motion coutervailing processes that tend to restore the system to its original state.  Those processes will not necessarily succeed; they may fail, and they may also trigger changes of their own that push the system in unpredictable directions; still, such processes always emerge, and if you ignore them, it’s a fairly safe bet that they’re going to blindside you.

The law of equilibrium is what’s behind so many of the failures of technological progress in recent years.  Decide that you can just go ahead and annihilate pathogenic microbes en masse with antibiotics, for example, and the countervailing processes of the planet’s microbial ecology are going to shift into high gear, churning out genes for antibiotic resistance that spread from one bacterial species to another and render antibiotics less effective with every year that passes.  The same is true of genetically engineered plants—one of the ugly little secrets of the GMO industry is that one insect species after another is doing exactly what Darwinian theory says it should, evolving right around the biotoxins released by Monsanto’s supposedly pestproof Frankencrops, and chowing down on the otherwise unprotected buffet spread for them by unsuspecting farmers—and of any number of equally clueless tinkerings with natural processes that are blowing up in humanity’s collective face just now.

The global industrial economy is also a whole system, and though it’s countless orders of magnitude less complex and sophisticated than the biosphere, it still responds to changing conditions with its own countervailing processes.  That’s what’s been happening with global liquid fuels production.  As the rate of conventional petroleum production peaked and began its decline, the countervailing processes took the form of rising prices, which made more expensive sources of liquid fuels profitable, and kept total production of liquid fuels not far from where it was when conventional oil peaked in 2005. The wild swings in price since then have provided the thermostat for this homeostatic process, balancing the ragged decline of conventional petroleum and the equally ragged expansion of substitute fuels by influencing the profitability of any given fuel over time. In its own way, it’s an elegant mechanism, however much turmoil and suffering it happens to generate in the real world.

Does this mean that peak oil is no longer an issue?  Not by a long shot, because the economic shifts necessary to bring substitute fuels into the fuel supply don’t exist in a vacuum, either. They also put pressure on the global industrial economy, and generate countervailing processes of their own. That’s the detail that both sides of the peak oil nondebate have by and large been missing, even as those countervailing processes have been whipsawing the global economy and driving changes that seemed implausible even to most peak oil analysts just a short time ago.

The point that has to be grasped in order to understand these broader effects is that the higher price of substitute fuels isn’t arbitrary.  Tar sand extractives, for example, cost more to produce than light sweet crude because pressure-washing tar out of tar sands and converting it to a rough equivalent of crude oil takes much more in the way of energy, resources, and labor than it takes to drill for the same amount of conventional oil. Each year, therefore, as more of the liquid fuels supply is made up by tar sand extractives and other substitute fuels, larger fractions of the annual supply of energy, raw materials, and labor have to be devoted to the process of bringing liquid fuels to market, leaving a smaller portion of each of these things to be divided up among all other economic sectors. 

Some of the effects of this process are obvious enough—for example, the spikes in food prices we’ve been having since 2005, as the increasing use of ethanol and biodiesel as liquid fuels means that grains and vegetable oils are being diverted from the food supply for use as feedstocks for fuel.  Many others are less obvious—for example, as energy prices have risen and energy companies have become Wall Street favorites, many billions of dollars that might otherwise have become capital for other industries have flowed into the energy sector instead.  Each of these effects, however, represents a drain on other sectors of the economy, and thus a force for change that sets countervailing processes into motion.

Those processes are a good deal more complex than the ones we’ve traced so far, since they involve competition for capital and other resources among different sectors of the economy, a struggle in which political and cultural factors play at least as large a role as economics.  Still, one result can be traced in the unexpected decline in petroleum consumption that has taken place in the United States since 2008, and that precisely parallels the similar decline that happened between 1975 and 1985 in response to a similar rise in oil prices.  To describe this process as demand destruction is an oversimplification; a dizzyingly complex array of factors, ranging from the TSA’s officially sanctioned habit of sexually molesting airline passengers, on the one hand, to shifts in teen fashion that are making driving uncool for the first time in a century on the other, have fed into the decline in oil consumption; still, the thing is happening, and it’s probably fair to say that the increasing impoverishment of most Americans is playing a very large role in it.

Thus the simple model of peak oil that dates from Hubbert’s time badly needs updating. Ironically, The Limits to Growth—the most accurate and thus, inevitably, the most maligned of the various guides to our unwelcome future offered up so far—provided the necessary insight decades ago. By the simple expedient of lumping resources, industrial production, and other primary factors into a single variable each, the Limits to Growth team avoided the fixation on detail that so often blinds people to systems behavior on the broad scale. Within the simplified model that resulted, it became obvious that limitless growth on a finite planet engenders countervailing processes that tend to restore the original state of the system. It became just as obvious that the most important of those processes was the simple fact that in any environment with finite resources and a finite capacity to absorb pollution, the costs of growth would eventually rise faster than the benefits, and force the global economy to its knees.

That’s what’s happening now.  What makes that hard to see at first glance is that the costs of growth are popping up in unexpected places; put too much stress on a chain and it’ll break, but the link that breaks isn’t necessarily the one closest to the source of stress.  The economies of the world’s industrial nations are utterly dependent on a steady supply of liquid fuels, and so a steady supply of liquid fuels they will have, even if every other sector of the economy has to be dumped into the hopper in order to keep the fuel flowing. As every other sector of the economy is dumped into that hopper, in turn, the demand for liquid fuels goes down, because when people who used to be employed by the rest of the economy can no longer afford to spend spring break in Mazatlan, or buy goods that have to be shipped halfway around the planet, or put gas in their cars, their share of petroleum consumption goes unclaimed.

This process is, among other things, one of the main forces behind the disappearance of "bankable projects" discussed in last week’s post.  The reallocation of ever larger fractions of capital, resources, and labor to the production of liquid fuels represents a subtle drain on most other fields of economic endeavor, driving costs up and profits down across the board. The one exception is the financial sector, since increasing the amount of paper value produced by purely financial transactions involves no additional capital, resources, and labor—a derivative worth ten million dollars costs no more to produce, in terms of real inputs, than one worth ten thousand, or for that matter ten cents. Thus financial transactions increasingly become the only reliable source of profit in an otherwise faltering economy, and the explosive expansion of abstract paper wealth masks the contraction of real wealth.

When systems theorists explain that the behavior of whole systems can be counterintuitive, this is the sort of thing they have in mind. It’s quite possible that as we move further past the peak of conventional petroleum production, the consumption of petroleum products will continue to decline, so that when the ability to produce substitute fuels declines as well—as of course it will—the impact of the latter decline will be hard to trace. Ever more elaborate towers of hallucinatory wealth, ably assisted by reams of doctored government statistics, will project the illusion of a thriving economy onto a society in freefall; the stock market will wobble around its current level for a long time to come, booming and crashing on occasion as bubbles come and go; meanwhile a growing fraction of the population will be forced to drop out of the official economy altogether, and be left to scrape together whatever sort of living they can in some updated equivalent of the Hoovervilles and tarpaper shacks of the 1930s.

No doubt the glossy magazines that make their money by marketing a rose-colored image of the future to today’s privileged classes will hail declines in petroleum demand as a sign that some golden age of green technology is at hand, and trot out a flurry of anecdotes to prove it; all they’ll have to do is ignore the hard figures showing that demand for renewable-energy systems is dropping too, as people who have no money find solar panels as unaffordable as barrels of oil. For that matter, the people who are insisting in today’s media that the United States will achieve energy independence by 2050 may just turn out to be right; it’s just that this will happen because the US will have devolved into a bankrupt Third World nation in which the vast majority of the population lives in abject poverty and petroleum consumption has dropped to a sixth or less of its current level.

That’s not the future that comes out of a simplistic reading of Hubbert’s curve—though it’s only fair to mention that it’s the future that some of us who used to be on the fringes of the peak oil scene have been discussing all along. Still, it looks increasingly likely that this is the sort of future we’re going to get, and it’s certainly the one that current trends appear to be creating around us right now. No doubt cornucopians in 2050 will be insisting that everything is actually just fine, the drastic impoverishment of most of the American people is just the sort of healthy readjustment a capitalist economy needs from time to time, and we’ll be going back to the Moon any day now, just as soon as we finish reopening the Erie Canal to mule-drawn barge traffic so that grain can get from the Midwest to the slowly drowning cities of the east coast. With any luck, though, the peak oil blogosphere—it’ll have morphed into printed newsletters by then, granted—will have long since noticed that whole system processes do in fact shape the way that the twilight of the petroleum age is unfolding.  How that is likely to affect the twilight of American empire will be central to the posts of the next several months.

End of the World of the Week #28

It’s a repeated source of embarrassment for scientists of all kinds that the culture in which they live is so much less comfortable with hypothetical statements and tentative suggestions than the internal subculture of science tends to be.  Witness the embarrassment of the solar astronomers and atmospheric physicists who suggested, back in the late 1990s, that the upcoming solar cycle 23 might see some disruption of Earth-based electronics by the electromagnetic effects of solar flares.

It was a reasonable supposition, since strong solar flares have a solid track record of frying sensitive electronic systems and disabling satellites. Still, it didn’t take long before their tentative suggestion was inflated into apocalyptic prophecy.  Web pages screamed that before cycle 23 was over, an immense solar flare would inevitably bring down the electrical grid worldwide, turning computers and other electronic devices into useless silicon fritters, and plunging the world into an instant dark age complete with roving hordes of starving survivors.  The popular online sport of apocalypse machismo—"I can imagine a cataclysm more horrifying than you can!"—went into overdrive on this one, spawning no end of highly colored accounts of just how everybody else was going to die.

As it happened, cycle 23 did see a couple of spectacular solar flares, including two of the largest ever measured, but none of the big ones happened to be pointed anywhere near Earth. (If the Earth’s orbit was as big around as a football stadium, remember, the Sun would be a beach ball sitting on the 50 yard line and the Earth would be a marble perched somewhere on the last row of bleachers.) When solar cycle 23 came to an end in December 2008, as a result, the Sun shone down on a world not noticeably more devastated than it had been when the cycle began.

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Twilight of Investment

It’s been a few weeks since the conversation on this blog veered away from the decline and fall of American empire to comment on points raised by the recent Age of Limits conference. Glancing back over the detour, I feel it was worth making, but it’s time to circle back to that earlier theme and take it one step further—that is, to shift from how we got here and where we are to where we are headed and why.

That’s a timely topic just at the moment, because events on the other side of the Atlantic have placed some of the crucial factors in high relief. A diversity of forces have come together to turn Europe into the rolling economic debacle it is today, and not all of them are shared by industrial civilization as a whole.  Still, a close look at the European crisis will make it possible to make sense of the broader predicament of the industrial world, on the one hand, and the way that predicament will likely play out in the collapse of what remains of the American economy on the other.

Let’s begin with an overview. During the global real estate bubble of the last decade, European banks invested heavily and recklessly in a great many dubious projects, and were hit hard when the bubble burst and those projects moved abruptly toward their real value, which in most cases was somewhere down close to zero. Only one European nation, Iceland, did the intelligent thing, allowed its insolvent banks to fail, paid out to those depositors who were covered by deposit insurance, and drew a line under the problem. Everywhere else, governments caved in to pressure from the rentier class—the people whose income depends on investments rather than salaries, wages, or government handouts—and from foreign governments, and assumed responsibility for all the debts of their failed banks without exception.

Countries that did so, however, found that the interest rates they had to pay to borrow in credit markets quickly soared to ruinous levels, as investors sensibly backed away from countries that were too deeply in debt. Ireland and Greece fell into this trap, and turned to the IMF and the financial agencies of the European Union for help, only to discover the hard way that the "help" consisted of loans at market rates—that is, adding more debt on top of an already crushing debt burden—with conditions attached: specifically, the conditions that were inflicted on a series of Third World countries in the wake of the 1998 financial crash, with catastrophic results.

It used to be called the Washington Consensus, though nobody’s using that term now for the "austerity measures" currently being imposed on the southern half of Europe. Basically, it amounts to the theory that the best therapy for a nation over its head in debt consists of massive cuts to government spending and the enthusiastic privatization, at fire-sale prices, of government assets. In theory, again, debtor countries that embrace this set of prescriptions are supposed to return promptly to prosperity. In practice—and it’s been tried on well over two dozen countries over the last three decades or so, so there’s an ample body of experience—debtor countries that embrace this set of prescriptions are stripped to the bare walls by their creditors and remain in an economic coma until populist politicians seize power, tell the IMF where it can put its economic ideology, and default on their unpayable debts. That’s what Iceland did, as Russia, Argentina, and any number of other countries did earlier, and it’s the only way for an overindebted country to return to prosperity.

That reality, though, is not exactly welcome news to those nations profiting off the modern form of wealth pump, in which unpayable loans usually play a large role.  Whenever you see the Washington Consensus being imposed on a country, look for the nations that are advocating it most loudly and it’s a safe bet that they’ll be the countries most actively engaged in stripping assets from the debtor nation.  In today’s European context, that would be Germany. It’s one of the mordant ironies of contemporary history that Europe fought two of the world’s most savage wars in the firt half of the twentieth century to deny Germany a European empire, then spent the second half of the same century allowing Germany to attain peacefully nearly every one of its war aims short of overseas colonies and a victory parade down the Champs Élysées. 

Since the foundation of the Eurozone, in particular, European economic policy has been managed for German benefit even—as happens tolerably often—at the expense of other European nations. The single currency itself is an immense boon to the German economy, which spent decades struggling with  exchange rates that made German exports more expensive, and foreign imports more affordable, to Germany’s detriment. The peseta, the lira, the franc and other European currencies can no longer respond to trade imbalances by losing value relative to the deutschmark now that it’s all one currency. The resulting system—combined with the free trade regulations demanded by economic orthodoxy and enforced by bureaucrats in Brussels—has functioned as a highly efficient wealth pump, and has allowed Germany and a few of its northern European neighbors to prosper while southern Europe stumbles deeper into economic collapse.

In one sense, then, it’s no wonder that German governmental officials are insisting at the top of their lungs that other European countries have to bail out failing banks and then use tax revenues to pay off the resulting debt, even if that requires those countries to follow what amounts to a recipe for national economic suicide.  The end of the wealth pump might not mean the endgame for Germany’s current prosperity, but it would certainly make matters much more difficult for the German economy, and thus for the future prospects not only of Angela Merkel but of a great many other German politicians. Now even the most blinkered politician ought to recognize that trying to squeeze the last drop of wealth out of southern Europe is simply going to speed up the arrival of the populist politicians mentioned a few paragraphs back, but I suppose it’s possible that this generation of German politicians are too clueless or too harried to think of that.

Still, there may be more going on, because all these disputes are taking place in a wider context.

The speculative bubble that popped so dramatically in 2008 was by most measures the biggest in human history, considerably bigger than the one that blew the global economy to smithereens in 1929. Even so, the events of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it remain the gold standard of economic crisis, and the managers of the world’s major central banks in 2008 were not unaware of the factors that turned the 1929 crash into what remains, even by today’s standards, the worst economic trauma of modern times. Most of those factors amount to catastrophic mistakes on the part of central bankers, so it’s just as well that today’s central bankers are paying attention.

The key to understanding the Great Depression lies in understanding what exactly it was that went haywire in 1929. In the United States, for example, all the factors that made for ample prosperity in the 1920s were still solidly in place in 1930. Nothing had gone wrong with the farms, factories, mines and oil wells that undergirded the American economy, nor was there any shortage of laborers ready to work or consumers eager to consume. What happened was that the money economy—the system of abstract tokens that industrial societies use to allocate goods and services among people—had frozen up. Since most economic activity in an industrial society depends on the flow of money, and there are no systems in place to take over from the money economy if that grinds to a halt, a problem with the distribution and movement of money made it impossible for the real economy of goods and services to function.

That was what the world’s central bankers were trying to prevent in 2008 and the years immediately afterward, and it’s what they’re still trying to prevent today. That’s what the trillions of dollars that were loaned into existence by the Fed, the Bank of England, and other central banks, and used to prop up failing financial institutions, were meant to do, and it may well be part what’s behind the frantic attempts already mentioned to stave off defaults and prevent banks from paying the normal price for the resoundingly stupid investments of the former boom—though of course the unwillingness of bankers to pay that price with their own careers, and the convenience of large banks as instruments of wealth pumping, also have large roles there.

In 1929 and 1930, panic selling in the US stock market erased millions of dollars in notional wealth—yes, that was a lot of money then—and made raising capital next to impossible for businesses and individuals alike. In 1931, the crisis spread into the banking industry, kicking off a chain reaction of bank failures that pushed the global money system into cardiac arrest and forced the economies of the industrial world to their knees.  The world’s central bankers set out to prevent a repeat of that experience. It’s considered impolite in many circles to mention this, but by and large they succeeded; the global economy is still in a world of hurt, no question, but the complete paralysis of the monetary system that made the Great Depression what it was has so far been avoided.

There’s a downside to that, however, which is that keeping the monetary system from freezing up has done nothing to deal with the underlying problem driving the current crisis, the buildup of an immense dead weight of loans and other financial instruments that are supposed to be worth something, and aren’t. Balance sheets throughout the global economy are loaded to the bursting point with securitized loans that will never be paid back, asset-backed securities backed by worthless assets, derivatives of derivatives of derivatives wished into being by what amounts to make-believe, and equally valuable financial exotica acquired during the late bubble by people who were too giddy with paper profits to notice their actual value, which in most cases is essentially zero. 

What makes this burden so lethal is that financial institutions of all kinds are allowed to treat this worthless paper as though it still has some approximation of its former theoretical value, even though everyone in the financial industry knows how much it’s really worth. Forcing firms to value it at market rates would cause a catastrophic string of bankruptcies; even forcing firms to admit to how much of it they have, and of what kinds, could easily trigger bank runs and financial panic; while it remains hidden, though, nobody knows when enough of it will blow up and cause another financial firm to implode—and so the trust that’s essential to the functioning of a money economy goes away in a hurry. Nobody wants to loan money to a firm whose other assets might suddenly turn into twinkle dust; for that matter, nobody wants to let their own cash reserves decline, in case their other assets turn into the same illiquid substance; and so the flow of money through the economy slows to a creep, and fails to do the job it’s supposed to do of facilitating the production and exchange of goods and services.

That’s the risk you take when you try to stop a financial panic without tackling the underlying burden of worthless assets generated by the preceding bubble. Much more often than not, in the past, it’s been a risk worth running; if you can only hold on until the impact of the panic fades, economic growth in some nonfinancial sector of the economy picks up, the financial industry can replace its bogus assets with something different and presumably better, and away you go. That’s what happened in the wake of the tech-stock panic of 2000 and 2001:  the Fed dropped interest rates, made plenty of money available to financial firms in trouble, and did everything else it could think of to postpone bankruptcies until the housing bubble started boosting the economy again. It doesn’t always work—Japan has been stuck in permanent recession in the wake of its gargantuan 1990 stock market crash, precisely because it didn’t work—but in American economic history, at least, it’s tended to work more often than not.

Still, there was a major warning sign in the wake of the tech-stock fiasco that should have been heeded, and was not: what boosted the economy anew wasn’t an economic expansion in some nonfinancial sector, but a second and even larger speculative bubble in the financial sphere. I discussed in posts late last year (here and here)  ecological economist Herman Daly’s comments about shortages of "bankable projects"—that is, projects that are likely to bring in enough of a return on investment to pay back loans with interest and still make a profit for somebody.  In an expanding economy, bankable projects are easy to find, since it’s precisely the expansion of an expanding economy that makes a positive return on investment the normal way of things. If you flood your economy with cheap credit to counter the aftermath of a speculative bubble, and the only thing that comes out of it is an even bigger speculative bubble, something significant has happened to the mechanisms of economic growth.

More specifically, something other than a paralysis of the money system has happened to the mechanisms of economic growth. That’s the unlearned lesson of the last decade. In the wake of the 2001 tech stock crash, and then again in the aftermath of 2008’s even larger financial panic, the Fed flooded the American economy with quantities of cheap credit so immense that any viable project for producing goods and services ought to have been able to find ample capital to get off the ground. Instead of an entrepreneurial boom, though, both periods saw money pile up in the financial industry, because there was a spectacular shortage of viable projects outside it.  Outside of manipulating money and gaming the system, there simply isn’t much that makes a profit any more.

Next week we’ll discuss why that is happening.  In the meantime, though, it’s important to note what the twilight of investment means for the kick-the-can strategy that’s guiding the Fed and other central banks in their efforts to fix the world economy.  That strategy depends on the belief that sooner or later, even the most battered economy will finally begin to improve, and the upswing will make it possible to replace the temporary patches on the economy with something more solid.  It’s been a viable strategy fairly often in the past, but it worked poorly in 2001 and it doesn’t appear to be working at all at this point. Thus it’s probable that the Fed is treading water, waiting for a rescue that isn’t on its way; what will happen as that latter point becomes clear is something we’ll be exploring at length later on in this series of posts.

End of the World of the Week #27

Those of my readers who, as I was, were young and impressionable in the early 1970s may well remember The Jupiter Effect, a once-famous book by John Gribben and Stephem Plagemann which saw print in 1974. Gribben and Plagemann were astrophysicists, which gave their claims a good deal of apparent credibility. They had noticed that on March 10, 1982, most of the planets in the solar system would be aligned with one another, and Jupiter—the most massive of the planets—would be part of the alignment as it passed through its closest approach to Earth. This additional gravitational tug, they proposed, would set off sunspots, solar flares, and earthquakes, making life interesting for our species and just possibly ending life on Earth.

The Jupiter Effect quickly developed a following, and joined a flurry of other apparently scientific predictions of imminent doom in circulation at that time. I’m not sure how many people were still waiting for catastrophe when 1982 came around, but any who were must have been sorely disappointed; the sunspot count for March 10 was nothing out of the ordinary, the solar flares and earthquakes failed to put in an appearance, and the only known result of the Jupiter Effect was that high tides that day were all of 0.04 millimeters higher than they would otherwise have been.

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Parting of the Ways

Chalk it up to an adolescence spent reading such cheerful books as The Limits to Growth and The Coming Dark Age, but it takes quite a bit to make me fret about the future. Even now, as industrial civilization begins to sink down the far side of Hubbert’s curve, and facts and figures come rolling in on a daily basis to sketch the predicament of our time in ever more detail, I usually find it easy to nod and make a note and go on with the work at hand, whether that’s bringing in greens and snow peas from the garden or hammering out this week’s Archdruid Report post.

Still, a series of news items over the last week or so have me worried. No, it’s not the latest news about methane plumes in the Arctic Ocean; it’s not the current round of economic idiocy from Europe, where the bizarre conviction that banks ought to be sheltered from the consequences of even their most clueless investment decisions has become the centerpiece of an economic nonpolicy that will likely tip the entire EU into mass bankruptcy; it’s not the death struggle between two failed ideologies that’s frozen Washington DC into utter political paralysis at a time when avoiding hard questions any longer may well put the survival of the nation at risk. No, quite the contrary: it’s the rising chorus of voices, from all across the political and cultural spectrum, insisting that everything really is all right and that any suggestion to the contrary ought to be shouted down as quickly as possible.

That’s been one of the less useful habits of large parts of the American right for some time now. Still, the habit of detachment from reality reached new lows this month, as North Carolina’s senate passed legislation forbidding the state from considering scientific evidence for rising sea levels in any policy dealing with the state’s low and vulnerable coastline. Texas and Virginia have already taken similar steps; it’s reminiscent of King Canute, who famously commanded the tide to retreat and just as famously got his royal feet good and wet.  Since all three of these states are in the hurricane belt, and rising sea levels add mightily to the destructive impact of hurricane storm surges, it’s unlikely that this attempt to better Canute’s score will end so harmlessly.

Over on the other side of the spectrum, mind you, there’s no shortage of equivalent ideas. My fellow peak oil blogger Jan Lundberg, an activist well over on the leftward side of things, recently posted a thoughtful critique of the ideas on display at a San Francisco alternative culture expo. In there with the alternative healers and pop mysticism was a pervasive and contemptuous rejection of the idea that there might be limits to material abundance. That habit’s been popular in the New Age scene for decades—Rhonda Byrne’s meretricious The Secret, with its insistence that focusing on your sense of personal entitlement will browbeat the universe into giving you all the goodies you want, has a long pedigree—but as Lundberg pointed out, it’s become tangled up with frankly paranoid conspiracy theories and frankly delusional notions about the human mind’s alleged ability to repeal the laws of thermodynamics. Lundberg suggests that what’s emerging here is a New Age equivalent to the Tea Party, and he’s quite correct:  there’s really not much to choose between "visualize, baby, visualize" and "drill, baby, drill."

I had a personal run-in with the same sort of thinking not long ago, in the course of finding a publisher for After Oil, the anthology of peak oil science fiction to which this blog’s readers contributed so many excellent stories late last year. (Yes, it’s going to press; I hope to have a tentative release date shortly.) One potential publisher, who had been enthusiastic about the project early on, rejected it with some heat once he read the manuscript.  He didn’t object to the literary quality of the stories; no, what upset him was the fact that the stories assumed that people in a post-peak oil world would be more or less like people today, living in a world no more loaded with miracles than the one we now inhabit. Why, he asked, couldn’t the authors have written stories in which the problem of peak oil was solved by people sprouting psychic antennae, or creating new forms of kinship with water molecules, or at the very least powering the world on algae fuel?

Now of course there is an answer to that question, which is that the point of the anthology was to tell stories about the kind of futures we’re going to get, rather than chasing pretty daydreams that start by pretending that the realities of our predicament don’t apply to us.  In the real world, my readers will have noticed, there’s a distinct shortage of people who grow antennae, psychic or otherwise; while cultivating a sense of kinship with water molecules seems reasonable enough to me—the human body is mostly water, after all—it’s not going to make water behave any differently than it does today; and there are solid thermodynamic reasons, discussed here and elsewhere, why algal biodiesel will never be more than a laboratory curiosity on the one hand, and a lure for unwary investors on the other.  Still, it became clear very quickly that this answer was not the sort of thing the publisher wanted to hear.

It’s something a great many people don’t want to hear these days, and the refusal to hear it is getting distinctly shrill in some quarters—consider the angry tone of the latest press releases from the financial sphere insisting that peak oil is nonsense—after all, it ought to be obvious to any reasonable person that waving around enough money will brush aside the laws of physics and geology, right?  Not too long ago, that insistence used to be expressed in tones of insufferable superiority—think of Daniel Yergin’s dismissals of peak oil, or the airy optimism of Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. Now of course Lomborg insisted that the price of oil would remain at $20 to $30 a barrel through 2020, and Yergin in 2004 claimed that the price of oil had reached a permanent plateau at $38 a barrel; the failure of oil prices to do as they were told doubtless contributed to the more strident tone such proclamations so often get these days.

Still, it’s not the shrill tone of the latest round that has me watching with more than the usual concern. It’s the increasing sense that not even the people who are promoting such claims actually believe them any more. The North Carolina legislators who are trying to pretend that sea level rise won’t happen, like their equivalents in Texas and Virginia, remind me of nothing so much as six-year-olds who stuff their fingers in their ears, scrunch their eyes shut, and chant "I can’t hear you, la la la" at the top of their lungs. The New Age equivalent is a little more subtle, but after half a century of failed predictions of saucer landings and leaps of consciousness—and let’s not even talk about what happened to the millions of Americans who tried to use The Secret to make boatloads of money for nothing by investing in the late real estate bubble—there can’t be many people left in the scene who don’t know, on some level, that they’re kidding themselves.  For that matter, if the publisher who turned down After Oil suddenly sprouted a pair of antennae, it’s probably a safe bet that, instead of embracing the event as a welcome miracle, he’d call a dermatologist in a fair state of panic.

If that’s the case—if the incantations being repeated these days to justify doing nothing significant about the crisis of our age are no longer even plausible to most of the people who mouth them—we are a good deal closer to a critical juncture in the downward slide than I thought. Visible ahead of us is a parting of the ways that will define a great deal of what we will experience in the years to come.

To understand that parting of the ways, it’s important to get a good clear sense of how self-deception works. I suspect most of my readers have had the experience of arguing themselves into believing, at least for a short time, something that they knew was not true.  It’s a fascinating study in the corruption of the intellect. To start with, much more often than not, questions of the truth of the belief in question are ignored or actively evaded; what matters is that accepting the false belief will bring practical benefits, or please another person, or identify the believer with an admirable person or group.

As the false belief is affirmed in public and expressed in action, though, the critical space required to accept the belief publicly without believing it inwardly trickles away.  The cognitive dissonance that comes from affirming and enacting a belief without believing it is hard to bear, and the more the belief is affirmed and enacted, the more painful the dissonance becomes.  One way out of the dissonance is to abandon the false belief, but social pressures often make that a costly and embarrassing step; the other option,  to make yourself believe that the false belief is true, routinely comes with equally substantial social rewards. It’s not surprising that a significant number of people make that latter choice.

Once it’s made, though, the pathologies of repressed disbelief unfold in predictable ways.  The believer becomes brittle and defensive about the false belief, affirming it loudly and publicly, and taking on the familiar social role of the strident true believer.  Elaborate arguments for the truth of the false belief take on an ever larger role in his mental life; if books of such arguments exist, you can count on finding them on his bookshelves, while his willingness to encounter differing views—not even opposing ones, but simply those that are not identical to the cherished false belief—drops like a rock.

Convincing the rest of the world of the truth of the false belief becomes a central concern, since every new convert to the false belief helps shore up the believer’s self-imposed conviction that the false belief really is true. Onto those who refuse to be converted, meanwhile, the believer projects not only his own unspoken doubts, but the bad faith and hypocrisy that surrounds those doubts.  Thus, in the mind of the believer, the unbeliever gets turned into a caricature of everything the believer can’t stand in himself, and serves by turns as a straw man, a scapegoat, and the supposed cause of everything evil in the world. 

How this trajectory ends is determined by the nature of the false belief itself, or more precisely by the relation between the false belief and the world of objective fact. If the belief does not require the world to behave in a way that it manifestly doesn’t, it’s entirely possible for believers to spend the rest of their lives loudly proclaiming the truth of a belief they know is false, and hating those people who reject the belief for openly speaking the truth the believers are unwilling to utter, without going further into oughtright psychopathology.  It’s when the false belief makes specific, falsifiable claims about the way the world works that problems crop up; the more central these claims are to the belief system, and the more obviously and repeatedly the claims are falsified, the more difficult those problems become.

The most productive way to cope with those problems is to abandon the false belief, and of course a good many people do that after a sufficiently forceful disconfirmation. Much less productive is the option of doubling down on the belief system, insisting on its truth in the face of any amount of evidence, and following it out to its logical conclusions no matter how horrific those happen to be. That’s how mass suicides happen:  back yourself into the blind alley of unconditional commitment to a belief you know to be false, and reject even the slightest doubt about the belief as a failure that’s unthinkable precisely because you’re constantly thinking it, and the temptation to prove your loyalty to the false belief in the one ultimately unanswerable way can be very hard to resist.

Most of my readers will be able to call examples of this trajectory easily to mind, and a fair number will have experienced at least a small part of it themselves. I’ve come to think, though, that in the years immediately ahead of us, it’s going to be almost impossible to miss.  Plenty of belief systems will have to deal with repeated disconfirmation, but the one that’s likely to get hit the hardest, and may well produce the biggest crop of pathological behavior, is the established religion of the modern industrial world, the belief in the inevitability and goodness of progress.

I’d like to suggest that it’s precisely the failure of the modern faith in progress that’s driving the rush to illusion discussed earlier in this post. Belief in progress has no place for the awkward reality that the wastes we’re pumping into the atmosphere are putting pressure on an already unstable global climate, sending meltwater flooding into the oceans and raising sea level; after all, according to the believers, progress is supposed to solve problems, not cause them. Belief in progress has no place for the hard fact that economic abundance can’t simply be wished into being, but depends on ample supplies of the cheap, concentrated energy that, in this corner of the universe, can only be had in sufficient quantities from the fossil fuels we’re depleting so rapidly. Belief in progress has no place at all, finally, for the unwelcome but necessary recognition that we won’t get far by sitting on our backsides and waiting for psychic antennae or some other miracle to save us from the consequences of our own mistakes.

Precisely because it has no place for these things, in turn, the faith in progress is taking quite a beating these days.  As the United States quietly folds up its space program, hands over its infrastructure to malign neglect, allows measures of public health to drop toward Third World levels, and lets what’s left of its economy devolves into a dishonest casino game, the mere fact that a narrowing circle of well-off individuals can buy electronic toys slightly more complex than last year’s equivalents just doesn’t have the cachet it once did. Even the mainstream media has had a harder time clinging to the mythic power of progress than it once did; it’s symptomatic that the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch—reread that, and let it sink in for a moment—recently hosted an essay pointing out that the idea of infinite growth is a delusion, and that economics has become a pseudoscience incapable of providing meaningful information about the future. ("What do you call an economist who makes a prediction?  Wrong.")

The question is how people will react to the increasing disconfirmation of the myth of progress. Some, I am relieved to say, have bitten the bullet, accepted the fact that progress was a temporary condition made possible by extravagant and unsustainable exploitation of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves, and begun to grapple with the challenges and possibilities of a future where progress no longer takes place and contraction and regression are the rule.  More will likely do so as we proceed—many more, in all probability, than I thought possible when I launched this blog six years ago. Still, I doubt the refusal to give up on the failed myth will be limited to North Carolina politicians, San Francisco New Age aficionados, and avant-garde publishers.

I suspect, rather, that the refusal to recognize and deal with the end of progress will become a massive social force in the decade or so ahead of us, and that the great divide in American society during those years will not be the one between left and right, or between rich and poor, but between those who have accepted history’s verdict on our fantasy of perpetual progress, on the one hand, and those who cling to the fantasy despite all disconfirmations, on the other.  Since refusing to recognize the fact of decline is a good way to get clobbered over the head by one or another of that fact’s manifestations—a point that the inhabitants of coastal North Carolina are likely to find out the hard way one of these days—those who choose the path of denial may be in for a very rough road indeed.

End of the World of the Week #26

Most fans of really bad cinema have enjoyed, if that is the right word, Ed Wood’s 1959 opus Plan Nine From Outer Space, the Golden Turkey Award winner for worst movie of all time. I sometimes wonder how many of them realize that the bizarre talking head who opens the movie, spouting preposterous prophecies in a stentorian voice, was once a significant cultural presence—the Amazing Criswell, America’s least convincing psychic!

Jeron Criswell Konig was a Hollywood figure in the 1950s and 1960s, a close friend of Mae West and a regular guest on The Jack Paar Show. His career as a psychic began inauspiciously enough when he needed material to pad out what would now be called "infomercials" for vitamins he was selling, and decided to put in predictions about the future. Giddily improbable though his prophecies were—he predicted that Denver would be destroyed in 1989 by a ray from space that would turn metal and stone to the consistency of rubber, that an epidemic of cannibalism would devastate Pittsburgh in 1980, and that Mae West would be elected President of the United States—he managed to get three books of predictions into print. (I read one of them in the Burien, WA public library when I was seven or eight years old, and even at that age found it utterly unconvincing.)

The end of the world, inevitably featured in the Amazing Criswell’s repertoire. That was scheduled to take place on August 18, 1999. A black rainbow would appear over the earth and, by some means not given in detail, would cause all the world’s oxygen to disappear, suffocating every living thing on the planet. It’s probably unnecessary to point out that, like most of Criswell’s other predictions, this one turned out to be a dud.

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

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush

I’m not sure how many people outside the writer’s trade realize how much of writing is a cooperative process. That’s as true of those of us who write late at night in the privacy of a silent room as it is of the more gregarious sort of writer, the kind you can expect to find in a crowded café, surrounded by voices and music and the clatter of street noises coming in the door: every writer is simply one voice in an ongoing conversation that includes many other voices, some living, some dead and some not yet born.

As I write this week’s post, for example, it’s difficult not to notice some of the other voices in this particular conversation. The bookshelf an easy reach to my left has a row of brightly colored trade paperbacks by some of my fellow peak oil authors—William Catton, Richard Heinberg, Jim Kunstler, Sharon Astyk, Dmitry Orlov, Carolyn Baker and more. Close by, the rolling brown landscape of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, all ten volumes, confronts the twin black monoliths of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, while Giambattista Vico’s New Science offers an ironic Italian commentary from one side.  Other shelves elsewhere in the room contribute other voices: biology and ecology textbooks from my college days; appropriate tech manuals from the Seventies brimfull of unfulfilled hopes; old texts on the magical philosophy that forms the usually unmentioned foundation from which all my thinking unfolds; and a great deal more. Poets, as often as not, these days: Robinson Jeffers, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot. Without the contributions of all these other voices, the conversation and thus my contributions to it would not be what it is.

Still, there are times when the conversational nature of what I’m doing becomes more obvious and more direct than usual, and one of those happened the weekend before last, at the Age of Limits conference I discussed in last week’s post. One of my presentations to that conference was a talk entitled "How Civilizations Fall;" longtime readers of this blog will know from the title that what I was talking about that afternoon was the theory of catabolic collapse, which outlines the way that human societies on the way down cannibalize their own infrastructure, maintaining themselves for the present by denying themselves a future.  I finished talking about catabolic collapse and started fielding questions, of which there were plenty, and somewhere in the conversation that followed one of the other participants made a comment. I don’t even remember the exact words, but it was something like, "So what you’re saying is that what we need to do, individually, is to go through collapse right away."

"Exactly," I said. "Collapse now, and avoid the rush."

Outside of that conversation, I doubt I would have thought of the phrase at all. By the end of the conference, though, it was on the lips of a good many of the attendees, and for good reason: I can’t think of a better way to sum up the work ahead of us right now, as industrial society lurches down the far side of its trajectory through time.  Longtime readers of this blog know most of the reasoning behind that suggestion, but it may be worth walking through it again step by step.

First, industrial society was only possible because our species briefly had access to an immense supply of cheap, highly concentrated fuel with a very high net energy—that is, the amount of energy needed to extract the fuel was only a very small fraction of the energy the fuel itself provided.  Starting in the 18th century, fossil fuels—first coal, then coal and petroleum, then coal, petroleum and natural gas—gave us that energy source. All three of these fossil fuels represent millions of years of stored sunlight, captured by the everyday miracle of photosynthesis and concentrated within the earth by geological processes that took place long before our species evolved.  They are nonrenewable over any time scale that matters to human beings, and we are using them up at astonishing rates.

Second, while it’s easy to suggest that we can simply replace fossil fuels with some other energy source and keep industrial civilization running along its present course, putting that comfortable notion into practice has turned out to be effectively impossible.  No other energy source available to our species combines the high net energy, high concentration, and great abundance that a replacement for fossil fuel would need. Those energy sources that are abundant (for example, solar energy) are diffuse and yield little net energy, while those that are highly concentrated (for example, fissionable uranium) are not abundant, and also have serious problems with net energy.  Abundant fossil fuels currently provide an "energy subsidy" to alternative energy sources that make them look more efficient than they are—there would be far fewer wind turbines, for example, if they had to be manufactured, installed, and maintained using wind energy.  Furthermore, our entire energy infrastructure is geared to use fossil fuels and would have to be replaced, at a cost of countless trillions of dollars, in order to replace fossil fuels with something else.

Third, these problems leave only one viable alternative, which is to decrease our energy use, per capita and absolutely, to get our energy needs down to levels that could be maintained over the long term on renewable sources.  The first steps in this process were begun in the 1970s, with good results, and might have made it possible to descend from the extravagant heights of industrialism in a gradual way,  keeping a great many of the benefits of the industrial age intact as a gift for the future. Politics closed off that option in the decade that followed, however, and the world’s industrial nations went hurtling down a different path, burning through the earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves at an accelerating pace and trusting that economic abstractions such as the free market would suspend the laws of physics and geology for their benefit. At this point, more than three decades after that misguided choice, industrial civilization is so far into overshoot that a controlled descent is no longer an option; the only path remaining is the familiar historical process of decline and fall.

Fourth, while it’s fashionable these days to imagine that this process will take the form of a sudden cataclysm that will obliterate today’s world overnight, all the testimony of history and a great many lines of evidence from other sources suggests that this is the least likely outcome of our predicament. Across a wide range of geographical scales and technological levels, civilizations take an average of one to three centuries to complete the process of decline and fall, and there is no valid reason to assume that ours will be any exception.  The curve of decline, to be sure, is anything but smooth; it has a fractal structure, taking the form of a succession of crises on many different scales, affecting different regions, social classes, and communities in different ways, interspersed with periods of stabilization and even partial recovery that are equally variable in scale, duration, and relevance to different places and groups.  This ragged arc of decline is already under way; it can be expected to accelerate in the months, years, and decades to come; and it defines the deindustrial age ahead of us.

Fifth, individuals, families, and communities faced with this predicament still have choices left. The most important of those choices parallels the one faced, or more precisely not faced, at the end of the 1970s: to make the descent in a controlled way, beginning now, or to cling to their current lifestyles until the system that currently supports those lifestyles falls away from beneath their feet. The skills, resources, and lifeways needed to get by in a disintegrating industrial society are radically different from those that made for a successful and comfortable life in the prosperous world of the recent past, and a great many of the requirements of an age of decline come with prolonged learning curves and a high price for failure. Starting right away to practice the skills, assemble the resources, and follow the lifeways that will be the key to survival in a deindustrializing world offers the best hope of getting through the difficult years ahead with some degree of dignity and grace.

Collapse now, in other words, and avoid the rush.

There’s a fair amount of subtlety to the strategy defined by those words.  As our society stumbles down the ragged curve of its decline, more and more people are going to lose the ability to maintain what counts as a normal lifestyle—or, rather, what counted as a normal lifestyle in the recent past, and is no longer quite so normal today as it once was. Each new round of crisis will push more people further down the slope; minor and localized crises will affect a relatively smaller number of people, while major crises affecting whole nations will affect a much larger number.  As each crisis hits, though, there will be a rush of people toward whatever seems to offer a way out, and as each crisis recedes, there will be another rush of people toward whatever seems to offer a way back to what used to be normal. The vast majority of people who join either rush will fail. Remember the tens of thousands of people who applied for a handful of burger-flipping jobs during the recent housing crash, because that was the only job opening they could find?  That’s the sort of thing I mean.

The way to avoid the rush is simple enough:  figure out how you will be able to live after the next wave of crisis hits, and to the extent that you can, start living that way now. If you’re worried about the long-term prospects for your job—and you probably should be, no matter what you do for a living—now is the time to figure out how you will get by if the job goes away and you have to make do on much less money. For most people, that means getting out of debt, making sure the place you live costs you much less than you can afford, and picking up some practical skills that will allow you to meet some of your own needs and have opportunities for barter and informal employment.  It can mean quite a bit more, depending on your situation, needs, and existing skills.  It should certainly involve spending less money—and that money, once it isn’t needed to pay off any debts you have, can go to weatherizing your home and making other sensible preparations that will make life easier for you later on.

For the vast majority of people, it probably needs to be said, collapsing now does not mean buying a survival homestead somewhere off in the country.  That’s a popular daydream, and in some well-off circles it’s long been a popular way to go have a midlife crisis, but even if you have the funds—and most of us don’t—if you don’t already have the dizzyingly complex skill set needed to run a viable farm, or aren’t willing to drop everything else to apprentice with an organic farmer right now, it’s not a realistic option.  In all likelihood you’ll be experiencing the next round of crises where you are right now, so the logical place to have your own personal collapse now, ahead of the rush, is right there, in the place where you live, with the people you know and the resources you have to hand.

Now of course the strategy of collapsing ahead of the rush is not going to be a popular thing to suggest. When I’ve brought it up, as of course I’ve done more than once, I’ve inevitably fielded a flurry of protests, by turns angry and anguished, insisting that it’s not reasonable to expect anybody to do that, and how can I be so heartless as to suggest it? Fair enough; let’s take a look at the alternatives.

One alternative strategy that gets brought up now and then has at least the advantage of utter honesty. It has two parts. The first part, while the benefits of industrial society are still available, is to enjoy them; the second, when those benefits go away, is to die. Often, though not always, the people who bring up this option have serious health conditions that will probably be fatal in a deindustrial world. I have no quarrel with those who choose this path; it’s an honest response to a very challenging predicament—though I admit I wonder how many people who say they’ve chosen it will be comfortable with their choice once part one gives way to part two.

The problem with most other proposed strategies for dealing with our predicament is that whatever they claim to do in theory, in practice, they amount to these same two steps.  Consider the very widely held notion that advocating for some alternative energy technology is a workable response to the twilight of fossil fuels.  I have no quarrel, again, with people who are actually doing something concrete to get some alternative energy technology into use—for example, the people whose enthusiasm for the Bussard fusion reactor leads them to build a prototype in their basement, or to help fund one of the half dozen or so experimenters who have already done this—but that’s rarely what this approach entails; rather, it seems to consist mostly of posting long screeds on the internet insisting that thorium reactors, or algal biodiesel, or what have you, will solve all our energy problems.

As Zen masters like to say, talk does not cook the rice, and blog posts do not build reactors; with every day that passes, despite any amount of online debate, more oil, coal, and natural gas are extracted from the planet’s dwindling endowment, and the next round of crises comes closer. In the same way, those who put their hopes on grand political transformations, or conveniently undefinable leaps of consciousness, or the timely arrival of Jesus or the space brothers or somebody else who will spare us the necessity of inhabiting a future that is the exact result of our own collective actions, are not doing anything that hasn’t been tried over and over again in the decades just past, without doing anything to slow the headlong rush into overshoot or the opening stages of decline and fall.

Check out the glossy magazines and well-funded websites dedicated to portraying "positive futures" and you can find the same sort of thinking taken to its logical extreme: soothing pablum about this or that person doing this or that wonderful thing, and this or that deep thinker coming up with this or that wonderful idea, all of it reminiscent of nothing so much as the cheerful tunes the Titanic’s band played to keep the passengers calm as water poured into the hull.  There’s quite a lot of money to be made these days insisting that we can have a shiny new future despite all evidence to the contrary, and pulling factoids out of context to defend that increasingly dubious claim; as industrial society moves down the curve of decline, I suspect, this will become even more popular, since it will make it easier for those who haven’t yet had their own personal collapse to pretend that it can’t happen to them.

The same principle applies to the people who donate to environmental causes and put solar panels on their roofs in the same spirit that led medieval Christians to buy high-priced indulgences from the Church to cancel out their sins. T.S. Eliot countered that sort of attitude unanswerably when he described salvation as "a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything". What we’re discussing belongs to a much less exalted plane, but the same rule applies: if you’re trying to exempt yourself from the end of the industrial age, nothing you can do can ever be enough. Let go, let yourself fall forward into the deindustrial future, and matters are different.

It’s difficult to think of anything more frightening, or more necessary.  "In order to arrive at what you do not know"—that’s Eliot again—"you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. In order to possess what you do not possess, you must go by the way of dispossession." Which is to say:  collapse now, and avoid the rush.

End of the World of the Week #25

Those of my readers who don’t happen to remember where they were on May 5, 2000 should probably be glad of that fact. According to Richard Noone’s 1997 bestseller 5/5/2000: Ice: The Ultimate Disaster, a planetary alignment on that day would destabilize the world’s ice caps and send them rushing toward the equator, flattening everything in their path. Before it was swamped in the rising tide of panic around the Y2K computer bug, Noone’s prophecy attracted a fair amount of attention in the American alternative scene, and believers discussed plans to loft themselves into the upper atmosphere via high-altitude balloons to wait out the cataclysm, and then return to repopulate the ravaged Earth.

It would have taken only a few minutes with a pocket calculator and a high school physics textbook to figure out that even the most dramatic planetary alignment doesn’t have enough gravitational pull on the Earth’s ice caps to budge them any distance worth noticing, but none of the believers seem to have taken the time to check that possibility.  In the event, the polar ice caps stayed put that day, as they normally do.

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