Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Bargain with the Archdruid

My anomalous position as a writer and speaker on the future of industrial society who holds down a day job as an archdruid has its share of drawbacks, no question, but it also has significant advantages.  One of the most important of those is that I don’t have to worry about maintaining a reputation as a serious public figure. That may not sound like an advantage, but believe me, it is one.
Most of the other leading figures in the peak oil scene have at least some claim to respectability, and that pins them down in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. Like it or not, they have to know that being right about peak oil means that they might just pick up the phone one of these days and field an invitation to testify before a Senate subcommittee or a worried panel of long-range planners from the Pentagon. The possibility of being yanked out of their current role as social critics and being called on to tell a failing industrial society how it can save itself has got to hover in front of them in the night now and then. Such reflections tend to inspire a craving for consensus, or at least for neatly labeled positions within the accepted parameters of the peak oil scene.

I can only assume that’s what lies behind the tempest in an oil barrel that’s rocked the peak oil end of the blogosphere in recent weeks, following the publication of an essay by Permaculture guru David Holmgren titled Crash on Demand. Holmgren’s piece was quite a sensible one, suggesting that we’re past the point that a smooth transition to green tech is possible and that some kind of Plan B is therefore needed. It included some passages, though, suggesting that the best way to deal with the future immediately ahead might be to trigger a global financial crash. If just ten per cent of the world’s population stopped using fossil fuels, he noted, that might be enough to bring the whole system down all at once.

That proposal got a flurry of responses, but only a few—Dmitry Orlov’s, predictably, was one of those few—noted the chasm that yawns between Holmgren’s modest proposal and the world we actually inhabit.  It’s all very well to talk about ten per cent of the population withdrawing from the global economy, but the fact of the matter is that it’ll be a cold day in Beelzebub’s back yard before even ten per cent of self-proclaimed green activists actively embrace such a project ,to the extent of making more than the most modest changes in their own livestyles—and let’s not even talk about how likely it is that anybody at all outside the culturally isolated fringe scene that contains today’s green subcultures will even hear of Holmgren’s call to arms.

Mind you, David Holmgren is a very smart man, and I’m quite sure he’s well aware of all this. An essay by David MacLeod pointed out that the steps Holmgren’s proposed to bring down industrial society are what he’s been encouraging people to do all along.  It occurs to me that he may simply have decided to try another way to get people to do what we all know we need to do anyway: give up the hopelessly unsustainable lifestyles currently provided us by the contemporary industrial system, downsize our desires as well as our carbon footprints, and somehow learn to get by on the kind of energy and resource basis that most other human beings throughout history have considered normal. 

Still, a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse; as far as I can tell, Holmgren’s essay hasn’t inspired any sudden rush on the part of permaculturists and peak oil activists to ditch their Priuses in the hopes of sticking it to the Man. Instead, it veered off into debates about whether and how “we” (meaning, apparently, the writers and readers of peak oil blogs) could in fact crash the global economy.  There was a flurry of talk about how violence shouldn’t be considered, and that in turn triggered a surge of people babbling earnestly about how we need not to rule out the use of violence against the system.

It’s probably necessary to say a few words about that here. Effective violence of any kind is a skill, a difficult and demanding one, and effective political violence against an established government is among the most difficult and demanding kinds. I’m sorry if this offends anybody’s sense of entitlement, but it’s not simply a matter of throwing a tantrum so loud that Daddy has to listen to you, you know.  To force a government to do your bidding by means of violence, you have to be more competent at violence than the government is, and the notion that the middle-class intellectuals who do most of the talking in the peak oil scene can outdo the US government in the use of violence would be hilarious if the likely consequences of that delusion weren’t so ghastly. This is not a game for dabblers; people get thrown into prison for decades, dumped into unmarked graves, or vaporized by missiles launched from drones for trying to do what the people in these discussions were chattering about so blandly.

For that matter, I have to wonder how many of the people who were so free with their online talk about violence against the system stopped to remember that every word of those conversations is now in an NSA data file, along with the names and identifying details of everybody involved. The radicals I knew in my younger days had a catchphrase that’s apposite here: “The only people that go around publicly advocating political violence are idiots and agents provocateurs. Which one are you?”

Meanwhile, in that distant realm we call the real world, the hastily patched walls of peak oil denial are once again cracking under the strain of hard reality. The Royal Society—yes, that Royal Society—has just published a volume of its Philosophical Transactions devoted to peak oil; they take it seriously.  Word has also slipped into the media that in December, a select group of American and British military, business, and political figures held a conference on peak oil; they also take it seriously.

Meanwhile, air is leaking out of the fracking bubble as firms lose money, the foreign investors whose wallets have been the main target of the operation are backing away, and the cheerleading of the media is sounding more and more like the attempts to boost housing prices around the beginning of 2008. The latest data point? Longtime peak oil researcher Jean Laherrere, who (let us not forget) successfully predicted the 2005 peak in conventional oil production well in advance, used the same modeling techniques to predict future production from the Bakken Shale. His call? A production peak in the fall of this year, with steep declines after that. He’s the latest to join the chorus of warnings that the fracking bubble is merely one more overblown financial scam moving inexorably toward a massive bust.

Of course we’ve been here before. Every few years, the mass media starts to talk about peak oil, proponents of business as usual look nervous, and those in the peak oil scene who are inexperienced enough not to remember the last few cycles of the same process start talking about the prospects of imminent victory. (Yes, I made that mistake a while back; I think we all have.) Then the walls of denial get patched up again, the mass media scurries back to some comforting fairy tale about ethanol, wind power, biodiesel, fracking or what have you; the proponents of business as usual go back to their normal blustering, and peak oil activists who got overenthusiastic about predictions of imminent triumph end up with egg on their faces. That’s standard for any social movement trying to bring about an unwelcome but necessary change in society. Each time around the cycle, more people get the message, and a movement smart enough to capitalize on the waves of media interest can grow until it starts having a significant influence on society as a whole.

That final step can arrive on various time scales; a successful movement for change can see its viewpoint filter gradually into the collective conversation, or there can be a sudden break, after which the movement can still be denounced but can no longer be ignored. Glance back through the last few centuries and it’s easy to find examples of either kind, not to mention every point between those two ends of the spectrum. I’m far from sure if there’s a way to tell how peak oil activism will play out, but my hunch is that it may be closer to the sudden-break end of the spectrum than otherwise. What lies behind that hunch isn’t anything so sturdy as a headline or a new study; rather, it’s something subtle—a shift in tone in the denunciations that The Archdruid Report fields each week.

I don’t know if other bloggers share this experience, but I’ve found that internet trolls are a remarkably subtle gauge of the mass imagination. There are some trolls who only show up when a post of mine is about to go viral, and others whose tirades reliably forecast the new themes of peak oil denial three or four months in advance. When some bit of high-tech vaporware is about to be ballyhooed as the miracle that’s going to save us all, or some apocalyptic fantasy is about to become the new reason why it’s okay to keep your middle class lifestyle since we’re all going to die soon anyway, I usually hear about it first from trolls who can’t wait to let me know just how wrong I am. It’s an interesting fringe benefit of a blogger’s job, and it’s alerted me more than once to trends worth watching.

It so happens that in recent weeks, some of the criticisms I’ve fielded have struck a distinctly new note. I still get the classic cornucopians who insist I’m babbling pessimistic nonsense and of course we’ll all be just fine, just as I still get the apocalypse fanboys who insist that I’m ignoring the fact that the doom du jour is sure to annihilate us all, but I’m now seeing a third position—that of course it’s a crisis and we can’t just go on the way we’ve been living, a lot of things will have to change, but if we do X and Y and Z, we can keep some of the benefits of industrial society going, and I’m being too pessimistic when I suggest that no, we can’t. Maybe everyone else in the peak oil scene has been getting these all along, but they’re new to my comments page, and they have a tone that sets them apart from the others.

To be precise, it sounds like bargaining.

I don’t imagine that anyone in the peak oil scene has missed the discussions of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of coming to terms with impending death—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and their application to the not dissimilar experience of facing up to the death of the industrial age. Many of us can look back on our own transits through the five stages, and I’ve long since lost track of the times I’ve heard people at a peak oil event roll their eyes and mutter the name of one of the stages to whomever is sitting next to them. For the most part, though, it’s been a matter of individuals going through their own confrontations with the death of progress at their own pace.

Maybe this is still what’s happening, but I wonder. For a very long time, even among peak oil activists, the prevailing mood was still one of denial—we can solve this, whether the solution consists of solar panels, thorium reactors, revitalized communities, permacultured forest gardens, supposedly imminent great turnings of one sort or another, or what have you. After the 2008-2009 crash, that shifted to a mood of anger, and furious denunciations of “the 1%” and an assortment of more familiar supervillains became much more common on peak oil forums than they had been. The rise of apocalypse fandom has arguably been driven by this same stage of anger—suicidal fantasies very often get their force from unresolved rage turned inwards, after all, and it’s likely that the habit of projecting daydreams of mass extermination onto the future is rooted in the same murky emotional soil.

If that’s indeed what’s been happening, then bargaining is the next stage.  If so, this is good news, because unlike the two stages before it or the one that follows, the stage of bargaining can have practical benefits. If a dying person hits that stage and decides to give up habits that make her condition worse, for example, the result may be an improved quality of life during her final months; if the bargain includes making big donations to charity, the patient may not benefit much from it but the charity and the people it helps certainly will. People under the stress of impending death try to strike bargains that range all the way from the inspiring to the absurd, though, and whether something constructive comes out of it depends on whether the bargain involves choices that will actually do some good.

If this stage is like the ones the peak oil scene seems to have transited so far, we can expect to see a flurry of earnest blog posts and comments over the next few years seeking reassurance in a manner peculiar to the internet—that is, by proclaiming something as absolute fact, then looking around nervously to see if anyone else agrees. This time, instead of proclaiming that this or that or the other is sure to save us, or out to get us, or certain to kill us all, they’ll be insisting that this or that or the other will be an acceptable sacrifice to the gods of petroleum depletion and climate change, sufficient to persuade those otherwise implacable powers to leave us untouched. The writers will be looking for applause and approval, and if that I think their offering might do some good, I’m willing to meet them halfway. In fact, I’ll even suggest things that I’m sure to applaud, so they don’t even have to guess.

First is conservation. That’s the missing piece in most proposals for dealing with peak oil. The chasm into which so many well-intentioned projects have tumbled over the last decade is that nothing available to us can support the raw extravagance of energy and resource consumption we’re used to, once cheap abundant fossil fuels aren’t there any more, so—ahem—we have to use less. Too much talk about using less in recent years, though, has been limited to urging energy and resource abstinence as a badge of moral purity, and—well, let’s just say that abstinence education did about as much good there as it does in any other context.

The things that played the largest role in hammering down US energy consumption in the 1970s energy crisis were unromantic but effective techniques such as insulation, weatherstripping, and the like, all of which allow a smaller amount of energy to do the work previously done by more.  Similar initiatives were tried out in business and industry, with good results; expanding public transit and passenger rail did the same thing in a different context, and so on.  All of these are essential parts of any serious response to the end of cheap energy. If your proposed bargain makes conservation the core of your response to fossil fuel and resource depletion, in other words, you’ll face no criticism from me.

Second is decentralization.  One of the things that makes potential failures in today’s large-scale industrial infrastructures so threatening is that so many people are dependent on single systems. Too many recent green-energy projects have tried to head further down the same dangerous slope, making whole continents dependent on a handful of pipelines, power grids, or what have you. In an age of declining energy and resource availability, coupled with a rising tide of crises, the way to ensure resilience and stability is to decentralize intead: to make each locality able to meet as many of its own needs as possible, so that troubles in one area don’t automatically propagate to others, and an area that suffers a systems failure can receive help from nearby places where everything still works.

Here again, this involves proven techniques, and extends across a very broad range of human needs. Policies that encourage local victory gardens, truck farms, and other food production became standard practice in the great wars of the 20th century precisely because they took some of the strain off  overburdened economies and food-distribution systems. Home production of goods and services for home use has long played a similar role. For that matter, transferring electrical power and other utilities and the less urgent functions of government to regional and local bodies instead of doing them on the national level will have parallel benefits in an age of retrenchment and crisis. Put decentralization into your bargain, and I’ll applaud enthusiastically.

Third is rehumanization. That’s an unfamiliar word for a concept that will soon be central to meaningful economic policy throughout the developed world. Industrial societies are currently beset with two massive problems:  high energy costs, on the one hand, and high unemployment on the other. Both problems can be solved at a single stroke by replacing energy-hungry machines with human workers. Rehumanizing the economy—hiring people to do jobs rather than installing machines to do them—requires removing and reversing a galaxy of perverse incentives favoring automation at the expense of employment, and this will need to be done while maintaining wages and benefits at levels that won’t push additional costs onto government or the community.

The benefits here aren’t limited to mere energy cost savings. Every economic activity that can be done by human beings rather than machinery is freed from the constant risk of being whipsawed by energy prices, held hostage by resource nationalism, and battered in dozens of other ways by the consequences of energy and resource depletion. That applies to paid employment, but it also applies to the production of goods and services in the household economy, which has also been curtailed by perverse incentives, and needs to be revived and supported by sensible new policies. A rehumanized economy is a resilient economy for another reason, too:  the most effective way to maximize economic stability is to provide ample employment at adequate wages for the workforce, whose paychecks fund the purchases that keep the economy going. Make rehumanization an important part of your plan to save the world and I won’t be the only one cheering.

Those are my proposals, then: conservation, decentralization, rehumanization.  Those readers who are looking for applause for their efforts at collective bargaining with the forces driving industrial society toward its destiny now know how to get it here. I’d like to ask you to step out of the room for the next paragraph, though, as I have a few things to say to those who aren’t at the bargaining stage just now.

(Are they gone? Good.  Now listen closely while I whisper:  none of the things I’ve just suggested will save industrial civilization. You know that, of course, and so do I.  That said, any steps in the direction of conservation, decentralization, and rehumanization that get taken will make the descent less disruptive and increase the chances that communities, localities, and whole regions may be able to escape the worst impacts of the industrial system’s unraveling. That’s worth doing, and if it takes their panicked efforts to bargain with an implacable fate to get those things under way, I’m good with that. Got it? Okay, we can call them back into the room.)

Ahem. So there you have it; if you want to bargain with the archdruid, those are the terms I’ll accept. For whatever it’s worth, those are also the policies I’d propose to a Senate subcommittee or a worried panel of long-range planners from the Pentagon if I were asked to testify to some such body,. Of course that’s not going to happen; archdruids can draw up proposals on the basis of what might actually work, instead of worrying about the current consensus in or out of the peak oil scene, because nobody considers archdruids to be serious public figures. That may not sound like an advantage, but believe me, it is one.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Return of the Space Bats

"Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the Universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the Universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.
“The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no-one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength—leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and was followed by evening, and by Viriconium.”

Those are the opening lines of The Pastel City by M. John Harrison, one of the fixtures of my arguably misspent youth. I pulled it down from my shelf of old paperbacks the other day, for the first time in years, and spent part of an evening rereading it. There were several reasons for that. Partly it was a fit of nostalgia; partly, I’ve finished all but the last minor edits on Star’s Reach, my post-peak oil SF novel, preparatory to placing it with a publisher, and was thinking back on some of the other fictional explorations of the coming deindustrial future I’ve read; partly—well, there’s a practical reason, but we’ll get to that a little later on in this post.

There were any number of books like it back in the day, mass-market SF paperbacks with gaudy covers ringing variations on a handful of familiar themes. You could almost describe The Pastel City as an example of what used to be called the sword and sorcery genre, one of the standard modes of 1970s fantasy, except that there isn’t any sorcery. The weird powers and monstrous enemies against which tegeus-Cromis the swordsman and his motley allies do battle are surviving relics of advanced technology, and the deserts of rust and the windblown ruins through which they pursue their fairly standard heroic quest are the remnants of an industrial society a millennium dead. In a real sense, it belongs to a genre of its own, which I suppose ought to be called postindustrial fantasy.

I first read it in the bleak little apartment where my father lived, in a down-at-the-heels Seattle suburb. Not long before, just as soon as he finished paying her way through college, my mother dumped my father like a sack of old clothes, and followed through on the metaphor by taking him to the cleaners in the divorce settlement. He took what refuge he could find in model airplanes, jigsaw puzzles, and science fiction novels, and I used to catch a bus north from my mother’s house to spend weekends with him. His apartment was a short walk from the library, which was one blessing, and close to a hobby shop where I could fritter away my allowance on spacecraft models, which was another; still, many of the best hours I recall from those days were spent curled up on his secondhand couch, reading the volumes of science fiction he’d bring home from the little bookstore six blocks away.

The Pastel City was one of those. I recall vividly the first time I read it, because it’s the book that first suggested to me that an industrial society could crumble away to ruins without benefit of apocalyptic fireworks and be succeeded by simpler societies. What was more, the last Afternoon Culture was simply backstory, no more immediately relevant to tegeus-Cromis and his friends than the fall of Rome is to you and me, and the wastelands, the marshes gone brackish with metallic salts, the dead and half-drowned city called Thing Fifty, and most of the other relics of that vanished time were just part of the landscape. It was easy for me, as I sat there on the couch, to imagine the wreckage of today’s world forming the background for adventures a thousand years in our own future.

I was curled up on the same couch when I first read Davy by Edgar Pangborn. He’s mostly forgotten these days, but Pangborn’s was a name to conjure with in the more literate end of the science fiction scene of the 1960s and 1970s, and Davy was much of the reason why. It’s a coming-of-age story—shall be literary and call it a Bildungsroman?—that goes on the same Platonic ideal of a bookshelf as Tom Jones and Huckleberry Finn, except that it takes place about five centuries from now in what’s left of northeastern North America.

Pangborn’s future history is as precise as it is uncomfortably plausible. There was a nuclear war, which killed a lot of people, and an epidemic among the survivors, which killed a lot more. Rising sea levels driven by global warming—yes, Pangborn was already onto that in 1964—flooded the lowlands. Stick in time’s oven and bake for centuries, and you’ve got a world of neofeudal statelets with more or less medieval subsistence economies clinging to the threadbare rhetoric of an earlier day.  Here’s Davy’s description of his world: “Katskil is a kingdom. Nuin is a commonwealth, with a hereditary presidency of absolute powers. Levannon is a kingdom, but governed by a Board of Trade. Lomeda and the other Low Countries are ecclesiastical states, the boss panjandrum being called a Prince Cardinal. Rhode, Vairmant, and Penn are republics; Conicut’s a kingdom; Bershar is mostly a mess. But they’re all great democracies, and I hope this will grow clearer to you one day when the ocean is less wet.”

Those ecclesiastical states aren’t Christian, by the way, but they might as well be. Pangborn was gay, and thus got an extra helping of the hypocrisy and intolerance that characterize American Christianity in its worst moods; he was accordingly an atheist; and his Holy Murcan Church was partly a parody of the mainstream American churches of his time, partly the standard atheist caricature of the medieval Catholic church, and partly a counterblast against Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, with its portrayal of Catholicism as a force for good in a future dark age America. Those of my readers who are atheists will enjoy that side of Davy; those who aren’t may find Pangborn’s bouts of religion-bashing annoying, or if they’ve heard the same talking points often enough elsewhere, simply dull. Fortunately there’s plenty more in Davy that makes it worth the read anyway.

Brilliant though it was, Davy still followed the conventions of the then-thriving postapocalyptic genre and didn’t quite manage, as The Pastel City did, to think its way right out from under the myth of progress and stop seeing history as a straight line that always leads back to us. Pangborn thus needed, or thought he needed, the diabolus ex machina of a nuclear war to bring Old Time crashing down. I forgave him that because his nuclear war wasn’t the usual canned Hollywood death-fantasy, just a bunch of cities being blasted to rubble, a lot of corpses, and high rates of sterility and birth defects among the descendants of the survivors, followed by normal decline and recovery.

Pangborn’s own summary is typically succinct: “barbarism, not actually ‘like’ Fifth Century Europe because history can’t repeat itself that way, but just as dark. Here and there enclaves where some of the valuable bits of the old culture survived. In some places, primitive savagery in its varied forms; and monarchies, petty states, baronies, whatever. Then through many centuries, a gradual recovery toward some other peak of some other kind of civilization. Without the resources squandered by the 20th Century.” That’s from Still I Persist In Wondering, an anthology of short stories set in the same future as Davy, as  were two other novels of his, The Judgment of Eve and The Company of Glory. Yes, I read all of them, many times; those of my readers who followed  Star’s Reach and pick up Pangborn’s tales will doubtless catch the deliberate homages I put in my story, and probably some influences I didn’t intend that sneaked in anyway.

The third book I want to mention here didn’t come to my attention until long after the secondhand couch went out of my life, but it came at another bleak time. That was the autumn of 1982, toward the end of my first unsuccessful pass through college, and right about the time it was becoming painfully clear that the great leap toward a sustainable future through appropriate technology, in which I planned on making my career, wasn’t going to happen after all. Those were the years when the Reagan administration’s gutting of grant money for every kind of green initiative was really starting to hit home, and attempts to mobilize any kind of support for those initiatives were slamming face first into the simple fact that most Americans wanted to cling to their cozy lifestyles even if that meant flushing their grandchildren’s future down the drain.

Somewhere in the middle of that autumn, under a hard gray sky, I went for a long and random walk in the grimy end of downtown Bellingham, Washington, down past old canneries and retail buildings that used to serve the working waterfront when there still was one. Somewhere in there was a shop selling girlie mags—this was before the internet, when those who liked pictures of people with their clothes off had to go buy them from a store—and out in front, for no reason I was ever able to figure out, was a tray of non-erotic used paperbacks for 50 cents each. I had a dollar to spare; I stopped to look through them, and that’s how I found The Masters of Solitude by Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin.

If The Pastel City is sword and sorcery without the sorcery, The Masters of Solitude might best be described as a post-apocalyptic novel without the apocalypse. It’s a three-handed poker game of a story set maybe two thousand years  from now in the eastern United States. From Karli in the south to Wengen in the north runs Coven country, a tribal realm following a faith and a culture descended from today’s Wicca. Off in what’s now western Pennsylvania are the Kriss, who worship a dead god. To the east, the urban enclave that extends from Boston down to Washington DC is simply the City, its people maintaining high technology with solar power, living for centuries by way of advanced organ-transplant techniques, sealing out the rest with an electronic barrier that shreds minds.

Long ago things were different; everyone in the world of The Masters of Solitude remembers that, however dimly.  Then the land was invaded and conquered by another people, the Jings, who left their name and some of their genetics and then faded from history.  Out of the ordinary chaos of a fallen civilization, the ordinary process of reorganization and cultural coalescence birthed new societies drawing in various ways on the legacies of the past. It’s history the way it actually happens, the normal rise and fall of nations and cultures, and it’s in the course of their ordinary history, the Covens, the Kriss, and the City stumble toward a confrontation that will shatter them all.

There were other books that could go into a list of postindustrial fantasy classics, of course, and I may talk about some of them another day. Still, the question I suspect a fair number of my readers are wondering is why any of this matters. Modern industrial civilization is beginning to pick up speed along a trajectory of decline and fall that differs from the ones we’ve just discussed in that it’s not safely confined to the realm of imaginative fiction. Is there any point in reading about imaginary societies that fell back from the Universe, dwindled, and died, when ours is doing that right now?

As it happens, I think there is.

Most of what’s kept people in today’s industrial world from coming to grips with the shape and scale of our predicament is precisely the inability to imagine a future that’s actually different from the present. Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the end of history may have been a masterpiece of unintentional comedy—I certainly read it in that light—but it spoke for an attitude that has deep roots all through contemporary culture. Nor is that attitude limited to the cornucopians who can’t imagine any future that isn’t a linear continuation of the present; what is it that gives the contemporary cult of apocalypse fandom its popularity, after all, but a conviction that the only alternative to a future just like the present  is quite precisely no future at all?

It would be pleasant if human beings were so constituted that this odd myopia of the imagination could be overcome by the simple expedient of pointing out all the reasons why it makes no sense, or by noting how consistently predictions made on that basis turn out to be abject flops. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen to be the case. My regular readers will long since have noticed how easily believers in a business-as-usual future brush aside such issues as though nobody ever mentioned them at all, and keep on insisting that of course we can keep an industrial system running indefinitely because, well, because we can, just you watch!  The only thing I can think of that compares with this is the acrobatic ingenuity with which believers in imminent apocalypse keep on coming up with new reasons why this week’s prediction of mass death must be true when all previous examples have turned out dead wrong.

What underlies both of these curious phenomena, and a great many other oddities of contemporary culture, is simply that the basic building blocks of human thinking aren’t facts or logical relationships, but stories. The narratives we know are the patterns by which we make sense of the world; when the facts or the testimony of logic don’t fit one narrative, and we have a selection of other narratives to hand, we can compare one story to another and find the one that’s the best fit to experience. That process of comparison is at the heart of logic and science, and provides a necessary check on the normal tendency of the human mind to get stuck on a single story even when it stops making sense.

As I pointed out here in the earliest days of this blog, though, that check doesn’t work if you only have one story handy—if, for example, the story of onward and upward progress forever is the only story about the future you know. Then it doesn’t matter how badly the story explains the facts on the ground, or how many gross violations of logic are needed to explain away the mismatches: given a choice between a failed narrative and no narrative at all, most people will cling to the one they have no matter how badly it fits. That’s the game in which both the cornucopians and the apocalypse fans are engaged; the only difference between them, really, is that believers in apocalypse have decided that the way to make the story of progress make sense is to insist that we’re about to reach the part of it that says “The End.”

The one way out of that trap is to learn more stories—not simply rehashes of the same plot with different names slapped on the characters, mind you, but completely different narrative structures that, applied to the same facts and logical relationships, yield different predictions. That’s what I got from the three novels I’ve discussed in this post. All three were fictions, to be sure, but all three were about that nebulous place we call the future, and all three gave me narratives I could compare with the narrative of progress to see which made the better fit to the facts. I’ve met enough other people who’ve had similar experiences that I’ve come to think of fiction about the future as a powerful tool for getting outside the trap of knowing just one story, and thus coming to grips with the failure of that story and the need to understand the future ahead of us in very different ways.

All of which brings me to the practical dimension of this week’s post.

A few weeks ago, I fielded an email from the proprietor of the small publishing house that released After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, the anthology of stories that came out of the peak oil fiction contest I held here in 2011 and 2012.  He was pleased to report that sales have been modest but steady—contributors should expect a statement and royalty check shortly—and asked about whether I was perhaps interested in putting together a second anthology along the same lines. (He also expressed a definite interest in hearing from writers who have novels on peak oil-related themes and are looking for a place to publish them; those of my readers who fall into this category—I know you’re out there—will want to check out the submissions requirements page on the Founders House website.)

I’m certainly game for a second story contest, and for editing a second anthology; given the torrent of creativity that the last contest called forth, I don’t expect to have any trouble fielding an abundance of good stories from this blog’s readers, either, so the contest is on. The requirements are the same as before:
  • Stories should be between 2500 and 7500 words in length;
  • They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;
  • They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;
  • They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;
  • They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;
  • They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;
  • They should deal directly with the impact of peak oil, and the limits to growth in general, on the future; and as before,
  • They must not rely on “alien space bats”—that is, dei ex machina inserted to allow humanity to dodge the consequences of the limits to growth. (Aspiring authors might want to read the whole “Alien Space Bats” post for a more detailed explanation of what I mean here.)
That is to say, the stories that will find a place in the second anthology, like those that populated the first, will feature human beings like you and me, coping with the aftermath of the industrial age in a world that could reasonably be our future, and living lives that are challenging, interesting, and maybe even appealing in that setting. I’d like to make an additional suggestion this time around: don’t settle for your  ordinary, common or garden variety postpetroleum future. Make it plausible, make it logical, but make it different.

The mechanics are also the same as before. Write your story and post it to the internet—if you don’t have a blog, you can get one for free from Blogspot or Wordpress. Post a link to it in the comments section of this blog. Yes, you can write more than one story, and yes, that will increase your chances of making the cut. The contest ends at the beginning of May, so get typing; for reasons I’ll discuss in next week’s post, we may just be entering into a window of opportunity in which new visions of the future could have a significant impact, and it might as well be your vision, dear reader, that helps make that happen.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Seven Sustainable Technologies

Last week’s post on the contemporary culture of apocalypse fandom was also, more broadly, about the increasingly frantic attempts being made to ignore the future that’s looming ahead of us. Believing that the world as we know it is about to crash into ruin, popular as it is, is only one of several strategies put to work in those attempts. There’s also the claim that we can keep industrial civilization going on renewable energy sources, the claim that a finite planet can somehow contain an infinite supply of cheap fossil fuel—well, those of my readers who know their way around today’s nonconversation about energy and the future will be all too familiar with the thirty-one flavors of denial.
It’s ironic, though predictable, that these claims have been repeated ever more loudly as the evidence for a less comfortable view of things has mounted up. Most recently, for example, a thorough study of the Spanish solar energy program by Pedro Prieto and Charles A.S. Hall has worked out the net energy of large-scale solar photovoltaic systems on the basis of real-world data. It’s not pleasant reading if you happen to believe that today’s lifestyles can be supported on sunlight; they calculate that the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of Spain’s solar energy sector works out to 2.48—about a third of the figure suggested by less comprehensive estimates.

The Prieto/Hall study has already come in for criticism, some of it reasonable, some of it less so. A crucial point, though, has been left out of most of the resulting discussions. According to best current estimates, the EROEI needed to sustain an industrial civilization of any kind is somewhere between 10 and 12; according to most other calculations—leaving out the optimistic estimates being circulated by solar promoters as sales pitches—the EROEI of large scale solar photovoltaic systems comes in between 8 and 9. Even if Prieto and Hall are dead wrong, in other words, the energy return from solar PV isn’t high enough to support the kind of industrial system needed to manufacture and maintain solar PV.  If they’re right, or if the actual figure falls between their estimate and those of the optimists, the point’s even harder to dodge.

Similar challenges face every other attempt to turn renewable energy into a replacement for fossil fuels. I’m thinking especially of the study published a few years back that showed, on solid thermodynamic grounds, that the total energy that can be taken from the planet’s winds is a small fraction of what windpower advocates think they can get. The logic here is irrefutable:  there’s a finite amount of energy in wind, and what you extract in one place won’t turn the blades of another wind turbine somewhere else. Thus there’s a hard upper limit to how much energy windpower can put into the grid—and it’s not enough to provide more than a small fraction of the power needed by an industrial civilization; furthermore, estimates of the EROEI of windpower cluster around 9, which again is too little to support a society that can build and maintain wind turbines.

Point such details out to people in the contemporary green movement, and you can count on fielding an angry insistence that there’s got to be some way to run industrial civilization on renewables, since we can’t just keep on burning fossil fuels.  I’m not at all sure how many of the people who make this sort of statement realize just how odd it is. It’s as though they think some good fairy promised them that there would always be enough energy to support their current lifestyles, and the only challenge is figuring out where she hid it. Not so; the question at issue is not how we’re going to keep industrial fueled, but whether we can do it at all, and the answer emerging from the data is not one that they want to hear: nothing—no resource or combination of resources available to humanity at this turning of history’s wheel—can support industrial civilization once we finish using up the half a billion years of fossil sunlight that made industrial civilization briefly possible in the first place.

Green activists are quite right, though, that we can’t just keep on burning fossil fuels.  We can’t just keep on burning fossil fuels because fossil fuels are a finite resource, we’ve already burnt through most of what’s economically viable to extract, and the EROEI of what’s left is dropping steadily as quality declines and costs rise. Back in the day when most petroleum on the market was light sweet crude from shallow onshore wells, its EROEI could be as high as 200; nowadays, a large and growing fraction of liquid fuels comes from deep offshore fields, fracked shales, tar sands, and other energy- and resource-intensive places, so the average for petroleum as a whole is down somewhere around 30 and sinking.

A common bad habit of contemporary thought assumes that gradual changes don’t mean anything until some threshold slips past, at which point things go boom in one way or another. Some processes in the real world happen that way, but it’s far more common for gradual shifts to have gradual impacts all along the trajectory of change. A good case can be made that EROEI decline is one such process.  For more than a decade now, the world’s economies have stumbled from one crisis to another, creaking and groaning through what would likely have been visible contraction if the mass production of paper wealth out of thin air hadn’t been been cranked into overdrive to produce the illusion of normality. 

Plenty of explanations have been proposed for the current era of economic unraveling, but I’d like to suggest that the most important factor is the overall decline in the “energy profit” that makes modern economies possible at all. EROEI is to a civilization what gross profit is to a business, the source of the surplus that supports the entire enterprise.  As the overall EROEI of industrial civilization contracts, habits that were affordable in an era of abundance profit stop being viable, and decline sets in. Long before that figure drops to the point that an industrial system can no longer be supported at all, most of us will have long since lost access to the products of that system, because every drop of liquid fuel and every scrap of most other industrial resources will long since have been commandeered for critical needs or reserved for the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

The twilight of the industrial age, in other words, isn’t somewhere conveniently far off in the future; it’s happening now, in the slow, ragged, uneven, but inexorable manner that’s normal for great historical transformations. Trying to insist that this can’t be happening, that there has to be some way to keep up our extravagant lifestyles when the energetic and material basis of that extravagance is rapidly depleting away from beneath us, may be emotionally comforting but it doesn’t change, or even address, the hard facts of our predicament.  Like the fashionable apocalypticism discussed last week, it simply provides an excuse for inaction at a time when action is necessary but difficult. 

Set aside all those excuses, and the hard question that remains is what to do about it all.

Any answer to that question has to start by taking seriously the limits imposed by our situation, and by choices made in the decades already past. Proposing some grand project to get the entire world ready for the end of the age of abundance, for example, is wasted breath; even if the political will could be found—and it’s been missing in action since 1980 or so—the resources that might have made such a project possible were burned to fuel three decades of unsustainable extravagance. While new systems are being built, remember, the old ones have to stay functional long enough to keep people fed, housed, and supplied with other necessities of life, and we’ve passed the point at which the resources still exist to do both on any large scale. As the Hirsch report pointed out back in 2005, a meaningful response to the peaking of petroleum production had to begin at least twenty years in advance of the peak to avoid catastrophic disruptions; that didn’t happen in time, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.

Any response to the twilight of the industrial age, in other words, will have to function within the constraints of a society already in the early stages of the Long Descent—a society in which energy and resources are increasingly hard for most people to obtain, in which the infrastructure that supports current lifestyles are becoming ever more brittle and prone to dysfunction, and in which most people will have to contend with the consequences of economic contraction, political turmoil, and social disintegration. As time passes, furthermore, all these pressures can be counted on to increase, and any improvement in conditions that takes place will be temporary.

All this places harsh constraints on any attempt to do anything constructive in response to the end of industrial civilization. Still, there are still options available, and I want to talk about one of those here:  an option that could make the decline a little less bitter, the dark age that will follow it a little less dark, and the recovery afterwards a little easier. Compared to grand plans to save the world in a single leap, that may not sound like much—but it certainly beats sitting one one’s backside daydreaming about future societies powered by green vaporware, on the one hand, or imaginary cataclysms that will relieve us of our responsibility toward the future on the other.

It’s only in the imagination of true believers in the invincibility of progress that useful technologies can never be lost. History shows the same thing with painful clarity: over and over again, technologies in common use during the peak years of a civilization have been lost during the dark age that followed, and had to be brought in again from some other society or reinvented from scratch once the dark age was over and rebuilding could begin. It’s a commonplace of history, though, that if useful technologies can be preserved during the declining years of a society, they can spread relatively rapidly through the successor states of the dark age period and become core elements of the new civilization that follows. A relatively small number of people can preserve a technology, furthermore, by the simple acts of learning it, practicing it, and passing it on to the next generation.

Not every technology is well suited for this sort of project, though. The more complex a technology is, the more dependent it is on exotic materials or concentrated energy sources, and the more infrastructure it requires, the less the chance that it can be preserved in the face of a society in crisis. Furthermore, if the technology doesn’t provide goods or services that will be useful to people during the era of decline or the dark age that follows, its chances of being preserved at all are not good at a time when resources are too scarce to divert into unproductive uses.

Those are tight constraints, but I’ve identified seven technological suites that can be sustained on a very limited resource base, produce goods or services of value even under dark age conditions, and could contribute mightily to the process of rebuilding if they get through the next five centuries or so.

1. Organic intensive gardening.  I’ve commented before that when future historians look back on the twentieth century, the achievement of ours that they’ll consider most important is the creation of food growing methods that build soil fertility rather than depleting it and are sustainable on a time scale of millennia. The best of the current systems of organic intensive gardening require no resource inputs other than locally available biomass, hand tools, and muscle power, and produce a great deal of food from a relatively small piece of ground. Among the technologies included in this suite, other than the basics of soil enhancement and intensive plant and animal raising, are composting, food storage and preservation, and solar-powered season extenders such as cold frames and greenhouses.

2. Solar thermal technologies.  Most of the attention given to solar energy these days focuses on turning sunlight into electricity, but electricity isn’t actually that useful in terms of meeting basic human needs. Far more useful is heat, and sunlight can be used forheat with vastly greater efficiencies than it can be turned into electrical current. Water heating, space heating, cooking, food preservation, and many other useful activities can all be done by concentrating the rays of the sun or collecting solar heat in an insulated space. Doing these things with sunlight rather than wood heat or some other fuel source will take significant stress off damaged ecosystems while meeting a great many human needs.

3. Sustainable wood heating.  In the Earth’s temperate zones, solar thermal technologies can’t stand alone, and a sustainable way to produce fuel is thus high up on the list of necessities. Coppicing, a process that allows repeated harvesting of fuel wood from the same tree, and other methods of producing flammable biomass without burdening local ecosystems belong to this technological suite; so do rocket stoves and other high-efficiency means of converting wood fuel into heat.

4. Sustainable health care. Health care as it’s practiced in the world’s industrial nations is hopelessly unsustainable, dependent as it is on concentrated energy and resource inputs and planetwide supply chains.  As industrial society disintegrates, current methods of health care will have to be replaced by methods that require much less energy and other resources, and can be put to use by family members and local practitioners. Plenty of work will have to go into identifying practices that belong in this suite, since the entire field is a minefield of conflicting claims issuing from the mainstream medical industry as well as alternative health care; the sooner the winnowing gets under way, the better.

5. Letterpress printing and its related technologies.  One crucial need in an age of decline is the ability to reproduce documents from before things fell apart. Because the monasteries of early medieval Europe had no method of copying faster than monks with pens, much of what survived the fall of Rome was lost during the following centuries as manuscripts rotted faster than they could be copied. In Asia, by contrast, hand-carved woodblock printing allowed documents to be mass produced during the same era; this helps explain why learning, science, and technology recovered more rapidly in post-Tang dynasty China and post-Heian Japan than in the post-Roman West.  Printing presses with movable type were made and used in the Middle Ages, and inkmaking, papermaking, and bookbinding are equally simple, so these are well within the range of craftspeople in the deindustrial dark ages ahead.

6. Low-tech shortwave radio.  The ability to communicate over long distances at a speed faster than a horse can ride is another of the significant achievements of the last two centuries, and deserves to be passed onto the future. While the scientific advances needed to work out the theory radio required nearly three hundred years of intensive study of physics, the technology itself is simple—an ordinarily enterprising medieval European or Chinese alchemist could easily have put together a working radio transmitter and receiver, along with the metal-acid batteries needed to power them, if he had known how.  The technical knowledge in the amateur radio community, which has begun to get interested in low-tech, low-power methods again after a long flirtation with high-end technologies, could become a springboard to handbuilt radio technologies that could keep going after the end of industrial society.

7. Computer-free mathematics.  Until recently, it didn’t take a computer to crunch the numbers needed to build a bridge, navigate a ship, balance profits against losses, or do any of ten thousand other basic or not-so-basic mathematical operations; slide rules, nomographs, tables of logarithms, or the art of double-entry bookkeeping did the job. In the future, after computers stop being economically viable to maintain and replace, those same tasks will still need to be done, but the knowledge of how to do them without a computer is at high risk of being lost. If that knowledge can be gotten back into circulation and kept viable as the computer age winds down, a great many tasks that will need to be done in the deindustrial future will be much less problematic.

(It’s probably necessary to repeat here that the reasons our descendants a few generations from now won’t be surfing the internet or using computers at all are economic, not technical. If you want to build and maintain computers, you need an industrial infrastructure that can manufacture integrated circuits and other electronic components, and that requires an extraordinarily complex suite of technologies, sprawling supply chains, and a vast amount of energy—all of which has to be paid for. It’s unlikely that any society in the deindustrial dark ages will have that kind of wealth available; if any does, many other uses for that wealth will make more sense in a deindustrialized world; and in an age when human labor is again much cheaper than mechanical energy, it will be more affordable to hire people to do the routine secretarial, filing, and bookkeeping tasks currently done by computers than to find the resources to support the baroque industrial infrastructure needed to provide computers for those tasks.

(The reason it’s necessary to repeat this here is that whenever I point out that computers won’t be economically viable in a deindustrial world, I field a flurry of outraged comments pretending that I haven’t mentioned economic issues at all, and insisting that computers are so cool that the future can’t possibly do without them. Here again, it’s as though they think a good fairy promised them something—and they aren’t paying attention to all the legends about the way that fairy gifts turn into a handful of dry leaves the next morning. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Archdruid Report.)

Organic gardens, solar and wood heat, effective low-tech health care, printed books, shortwave radios and a facility with slide rules and logarithms:  those aren’t a recipe for the kind of civilization we have today, nor are they a recipe for a kind of civilization that’s existed in the past. It’s precisely the inability to imagine anything else that’s crippled our collective ability to think about the future. One of the lessons of history, as Arnold Toynbee pointed out, is that the decline and fall of every civilization follows the same track down but the journey back up to a new civilization almost always breaks new ground. It would be equally accurate to point out that the decline and fall of a civilization is driven by humanity in the mass, but the way back up is inevitably the work of some small creative minority with its own unique take on things.  The time of that minority is still far in the future, but plenty of things that can be done right now can give the creative minds of the future more options to work with.

Those of my readers who want to do something constructive about the harsh future ahead thus could do worse than to adopt one or more of the technologies I’ve outlined, and make a personal commitment to learning, practicing, preserving, and transmitting that technology into the future.  Those who decide that some technology I haven’t listed deserves the same treatment, and are willing to make an effort to get it into the waiting hands of the future, will get no argument from me. The important thing is to get off the couch and do something, because the decline is already under way and time is getting short.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

2030 is the New 2012

Last week’s discussion of failed predictions in the peak oil movement inevitably touched on the latest round of claims that the world as we know it is going to come to a full stop sometime very soon. That was inevitable partly because these claims account for a fairly large fraction of the predictions made by peak oil writers each year, and partly because those same claims flop so reliably. Still, there’s another factor, which is that this sort of apocalypse fandom has become increasingly popular of late—as well as increasingly detached from the world the rest of us inhabit.

Late last year, for example, I was contacted by a person who claimed to be a media professional and wanted to consult with me about an apocalypse-themed video he was preparing to make. As I think most of my readers know, I make my living as a writer, editor, and occasional consultant, and so—as one professional to another—my wife, who is also my business manager, sent him back a polite note asking what sort of time commitment he was interested in and how much he was offering to pay. We got back a tirade accusing me of being too cheap to save the world, followed not long thereafter by another email in which he insisted that he couldn’t afford to pay anyone because his project would inevitably be the least popular video in history; after all, he claimed, nobody wants to hear about how the world as we know it is about to crash into ruin.

That was when I sat back on the couch and very nearly laughed myself into hiccups, because there’s nothing Americans like better than a good loud prediction of imminent doom. From Jonathan Edwards’ famous 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” right through to today’s zombie apocalypse craze, a good number of the biggest pop-culture phenomena in American history have focused on the end of the world in one way or another. A first-rate example is the 2012 furore, which turned a nonexistent Mayan prophecy of doom into one of the most successful media cash cows in recent times. I can testify from personal experience that toward the end of the last decade, every publisher I know of with a presence in the New Age market was soliciting 2012-themed books from all their regular authors because that was the hottest market going.

The 2012 prophecy may have been a predictive failure, in other words, but it was a whopping financial success. With that in mind, among other things, I predicted shortly after December 21, 2012 that a new date for the end of everything would soon be selected, and would promptly attract the same enthusiasm as its predecessor. As noted in a post last May, that was one of my more successful predictions; the new date is 2030, and it’s already picking up the same eager attention that made 2012 such a lucrative gimmick.

One of the great innovations of the runup to 2012, which will probably continue to shape apocalyptic fads for some time to come, is that you don’t actually have to propose a specific mechanism of doom; all you need is a date. The architect of the 2012 phenomenon, the late Jose Arguelles, seems to have been the marketing genius who first realized this.  His 1984 book The Mayan Factor, which launched the furore on its way, insisted that something really, truly amazing was going to happen on December 21, 2012, without offering more than vague hints about what that amazing event might be. Those who piled onto the bandwagon he set in motion more than made up for Arguelles’ reticence, coming up with a flurry of predictions about what was going to happen on that day.

It didn’t matter that most of these predictions contradicted one another, and none of them rested on any logic more solid than, hey, we know something amazing is going to happen on that day, so here’s some speculation, with or without cherrypicked data, about what the amazing event might be.  The pileup of predictions, all by itself, made the date itself sound more convincing to a great many people. Far from incidentally, it also offered believers a convenient source of shelter from skepticism:  if a nonbeliever succeeded in disproving a hundred different claims about what was supposed to happen on the big day, a hundred and first claim would inevitably pop up as soon as he turned his back, so that the believers could keep on believing that the world as we know it was indeed going to end as scheduled.

The same logic is already being deployed with equal verve on behalf of a 2030 doomsday. So far, without making any particular effort to find them, I’ve fielded claims that on or by that year, global warming will spin out of control, driving humanity into extinction; oceanic acidification will kill off all the phytoplankton, crashing oxygen levels in the atmosphere and driving humanity into extinction; the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone Park will erupt, plunging the planet into a volcanic winter and driving humanity into extinction; an asteroid will come spinning out of space and driving humanity into extinction, and so on.  I haven’t yet seen anyone proclaim that 2030 will see the Earth swallowed whole by a gigantic space walrus with photon flippers, but no doubt it’s simply a matter of time.

Now of course it’s possible to raise hard questions about each of these claims—well, in fact, it’s more than possible, it’s easy, since none of them rely on more than a few fringe studies on the far end of scientific opinion, if that, and most of them quietly ignore the fact that greenhouse-gas spikes, oceanic acidification, and nearly everything else but the aforementioned space walrus have occurred before in the planet’s history without producing the results that are being expected from them this time around. I’ll be taking the time to raise some of those questions, and offer some answers for them grounded in solid science, in a series of posts I’ll start later this year. Still, fans and promoters of the 2030 fad have nothing to fear from such exercises; like the legendary hydra, a good apocalypse fad can sprout additional heads at will to replace those that are chopped off by critics.

Thus it’s pretty much baked into the cake at this point that 2030 will be the new 2012, and that we can count on another sixteen years of increasingly overheated claims clustering around that date before it, too, slips by and a new date has to be found. We’ll be discussing the trajectory of the resulting furore from time to time on this blog, if only because there’s a certain wry amusement to be gained from watching people make epic fools of themselves.  Still, the point I want to raise this week is a little different. Granted that apocalypse fandom is an enduring feature of American pop culture, that very few people ever lost money or failed to attract an audience by insisting that the end is nigh, that a huge and well-oiled marketing machine lost its cash cow when 2012 passed without incident and thus has every reason to pile into the next apocalypse fad with redoubled enthusiasm: even so, why should fantasies of imminent doom attract so much larger an audience now than ever before, and play so much more central a role in the contemporary imagination of the future?

There are, as I see it, at least four factors involved.

The first is a habit of collective thought I spent much of last year discussing—the widespread popular conviction, amounting to religious faith, that today’s industrial civilization is an unstoppable juggernaut that will keep rolling onwards forever unless some even more gargantuan catastrophe mashes it flat to the dust. That conviction, as I’ve noted in previous posts, is not confined to those who are cheering the march of progress.  Plenty of people who claim that they hate industrial civilization and all its works are as convinced as any cornucopian that it’s certain to keep moving along its current trajectory, until it finally vanishes on the horizon of whatever grand or dreadful destiny it’s supposed to have this week.

As a heretic and a dissenter from  that secular faith, I’ve repeatedly watched otherwise thoughtful people engage in the most spectacular mental backflips to avoid noticing that perpetual progress and overnight annihilation aren’t the only possible futures for the modern industrial world. What’s more, a great many people seem to be getting more fervent in their faith in progress, not less so, as the onward march of progress just mentioned shows increasing signs of grinding to a halt. That’s a common feature in social psychology; it’s precisely when a popular belief system starts failing to explain everyday experiences that people get most passionate about treating it as unquestionable fact and shouting down those who challenge it. Believing that our civilization and our species will be gone by 2030 feeds into this, since that belief makes it much easier to brush aside the uncomfortable awareness that progress is over and faith in industrial society’s omnipotence has turned out to be utterly misplaced.

That’s one reason why apocalyptic fantasies are so popular these days. A second reason, which I’ve also discussed at some length in this blog, is the role such fantasies have in justifying inaction, when action involves significant personal costs. One of the hard facts of our present predicament is that the steps that have to be taken to get ready for the future bearing down on us all require letting go of the privileges and perquisites that most Americans consider theirs by right. A few years ago, I coined the acronym LESS—Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation—to summarize the changes that we’re all going to have to make as things proceed, and began pointing out that any response to our predicament that doesn’t start with using LESS simply isn’t serious.

I’m pleased to say that a certain fraction of my readers have taken that advice seriously, and tackled the uncomfortable job of downsizing their dependence on the absurd amounts of energy, stuff, and artificial stimulation that are involved in an ordinary American lifestyle these days. I’m equally pleased to say that an even larger number of people who don’t read The Archdruid Report and don’t know me from Hu Gadarn’s off ox have gotten to work doing the same thing. Those people are going to be in a much better position not merely to weather the crises ahead, but to help their loved ones, friends and neighbors do the same thing, and potentially also contribute to the preservation of the more useful achievements of the last few centuries. Still, it’s hard work, and it also requires a willingness to step outside the conventional wisdom of our society, which claims to be open to new and innovative ideas but in practice tolerates only endless rehashings of the same old notions.

Inevitably, a good many people who sense the necessity of change won’t act on that awareness because they realize the personal costs involved. Fantasies of imminent doom provide an escape hatch from the resulting cognitive dissonance. If the world is going to crash into ruin soon anyway, the reasoning runs, it’s easy to excuse further wallowing in the benefits the American system currently gives to its more privileged inmates, and any remaining sense that something is wrong can be redirected onto whatever cataclysm du jour the true believer in apocalypse happens to fancy.  Believing that the end is nigh thus allows people to have their planet and eat it too—or, more to the point, to convince themselves that they can keep on chomping away on what’s left of the planet for just a little while longer.

The third factor, which relates to the second one, unfolds from the historical tragedy of the Baby Boom generation, which is massively overrepresented in apocalypse fandom just now. The Boomers were among the most idealistic generations in US history, but they were also far and away the most privileged, and the conflict between those two influences has defined much of their trajectory through time. Starting when the Sixties youth culture crashed and burned, the Boomers have repeatedly faced forced choices between their ideals and their privileges.  Each time, the majority of Boomers—there have always been noble exceptions—chose to cling to their privileges, and then spent the next decade or so insisting at the top of their lungs that their ideals hadn’t been compromised by that choice.

Thus the early 1970s were enlivened by the loud insistence of former hippies, as they cut their hair and donned office clothing to take up the corporate jobs they’d vowed never to accept, that they were going to change the system from within. (Even at the time, that was generally recognized as a copout, but it was a convenient one and saw plenty of use.) By the 1980s, many of these same former hippies were quietly voting for Ronald Reagan and his allies because the financial benefits of Reagan’s borrow-and-spend policies were just too tempting to pass up, though they insisted all the while that they would put part of the windfall into worthy causes. Rinse and repeat, and today you’ve got people who used to be in the environmental movement pimping for nuclear power and GMOs, because the conserver lifestyles they were praising to the skies forty years ago have become unthinkable for them today.

One consequence of these repeated evasions has been an ongoing drumbeat of books and other media proclaiming as loudly as possible that that the Baby Boom generation would change the world just by existing, without having to accept the hard work and sacrifices that changing the world actually entails. From 1972’s The Greening of America right on down to the present, this sort of literature has been lucrative and lavishly praised, but the great change never quite got around to happening and, as the Boomers head step by step toward history’s exit door, there’s no reason to think it ever will.

Perhaps the saddest of all these works came from the once-fiery pen of the late Theodore Roszak, whose 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture played a significant role in shaping the Boomer generation’s self-image. His last book, The Making of an Elder Culture, expressed a wistful hope that once the Boomers retired, they would finally get around to fulfilling the expectations he’d loaded on them all those years ago. Of course they haven’t, and they won’t, because doing so would put their pensions and comfortable retirements at risk. Mutatis mutandis, that’s why the Age of Aquarius turned out to be a flash in the pan:  “Let’s change the system, but keep the privileges we get from it” reliably works out in practice to “Let’s not change the system.”

The expectation of imminent apocalypse is the despairing counterpoint to the literature just described. Instead of insisting that the world would shortly become Utopia (and no action on the part of Boomers is needed to cause this), it insists that the world will shortly become the opposite of Utopia (and no action on the part of Boomers is capable of preventing this). This serves the purpose of legitimizing inaction at a time when action would involve serious personal costs, but there’s more to it than that; it also feeds into the Boomer habit of insisting on the cosmic importance of their own experiences.  Just as normal adolescent unruliness got redefined in Boomer eyes as a revolution that was going to change the world, the ordinary experience of approaching mortality is being redefined as the end of everything—after all, the universe can’t just go on existing after the Boomers are gone, can it? It’s thus surely no accident that 2030 is about the time the middle of the Baby Boom generation will be approaching the end of its statistically likely lifespan.

The three factors just listed all have a major role in fostering the apocalypse fandom that plays so large a part in today’s popular culture and collective imagination. Still, I’ve come to think that a fourth factor may actually be the most significant of all.

To grasp that fourth factor, I’d like to encourage my readers to engage in a brief thought experiment. Most people these days have noticed that for the last decade or so, each passing year has seen a broad worsening of conditions on a great many fronts. Here in America, certainly, jobs are becoming scarcer, and decent jobs with decent pay scarcer still, while costs for education, health care, and scores of other basic social goods are climbing steadily out of reach of an ever-larger fraction of the population.  State and local governments are becoming less and less able to provide even essential services, while the federal government sinks ever further into partisan gridlock and bureaucratic paralysis, punctuated by outbursts of ineffectual violence flung petulantly outward at an ever more hostile world. The human and financial toll of natural disasters keeps going up while the capacity to do anything about the consequences keeps going down—and all the while, resource depletion and environmental disruption impose a rising toll on every human activity.

That’s the shape of the recent past. The thought experiment I’d like to recommend to my readers is to imagine that things just keep going the same way, year after year, decade after decade, without any of the breakthroughs or breakdowns in which so many of us like to put our faith.

Imagine a future in which all the trends I’ve just sketched out just keep on getting worse, a tunnel growing slowly darker without any light at the far end—not even the lamp of an oncoming train. More to the point, imagine that this is your future: that you, personally, will have to meet ever-increasing costs with an income that has less purchasing power each year; that you will spend each year you still have left as an employee hoping that it won’t be your job’s turn to go away forever, until that finally happens; that you will have to figure out how to cope as health care and dozens of other basic goods and services stop being available at a price you can afford, or at any price at all; that you will spend the rest of your life in the conditions I’ve just sketched out, and know as you die that the challenges waiting for your grandchildren will be quite a bit worse than the ones you faced.

I’ve found that most people these days, asked to imagine such a future, will flatly refuse to do it, and get furiously angry if pressed on the topic. I want to encourage my readers to push past that reaction, though, and take a few minutes to imagine themselves, in detail, spending the rest of their lives in the conditions I’ve just outlined. Those who do that will realize something about apocalyptic fantasies that most believers in such fantasies never mention: even the gaudiest earth-splattering cataclysm is less frightening than the future I’ve described—and the future I’ve described, or one very like it, is where current trends driven by current choices are taking us at their own implacable pace.

My guess is that that’s the most important factor behind the popularity of apocalyptic thinking these days. After so many promised breakthroughs have failed to materialize, cataclysmic mass death is the one option many people can still believe in that’s less frightening than the future toward which we’re actually headed, and which our choices and actions are helping to create. I suggest that this, more than anything else, is why 2030 is going to be the next 2012, why promoters of the it’s-all-over-in-2030 fad will find huge and eager audiences for their sales pitches, and why some other date will take 2030’s place in short order once the promised catastrophes fail to appear on schedule and the future nobody wants to think about continues to take shape around them.

Mind you, there are less delusional and less self-defeating ways to face the challenging times ahead—ways that might actually accomplish something positive in a harsh future. We’ll talk about one of those next week.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Song of the Snallygaster

I've noticed, over the past few years, a growing lack of enthusiasm in the formerly raucous festivities that once marked the end of one year and the beginning of another. That was certainly in evidence last night in our old red brick mill town here in the eastern end of the Rust Belt. As my wife and I clicked glasses together, the night outside was hushed. It was as though all the people who were grateful to see 2013 hauled away to the glue factory suddenly realized that the new year might well be worse.
I’m not sure why I didn’t share in the general gloom. When you live in a decaying empire that’s trying to meet the rising costs of its short-term survival by selling its own grandchildren down the river, contemplating the future that results from that choice isn’t exactly a recipe for hilarity, and making a career out of writing about that future might seem like a good way to meet each new year in a profound depression or a drunken stupor, take your pick. Still, that hasn’t been the case for me. Maybe it’s that I came to terms with the reality of our civilization’s impending decline back in the 1970s, when you could still talk about such things in public without being shouted down by true believers in perpetual progress and instant apocalypse, the Tweedledoom and Tweedledee of our collective non-conversation about the future; whatever the cause, I waved hello to the New Year and sipped a glass of bourbon in relatively good cheer.

There was at least one extraneous reason for that cheer. One of my solstice presents this year was a lively little book, Mysteries and Lore of Western Maryland by local author Susan Fair. Most parts of the United States have at least one book like it, collecting the ghost stories, spooky tales, and weird creatures of the area, and this one is a good and highly readable example of the species. Reading it took me back to some of the least wretched hours of my childhood, when I found refuge from a disintegrating family, and a school life marred by American education’s culture of mediocrity and bullying, by chasing down anything that made the walls of the world press a little less closely against me on all sides. Monster lore played a significant role in that process, and so I was delighted, in reading Fair’s book, to make the acquaintance of one of the local “fearsome critters,” the snallygaster.

Any of my readers who happen to be adept in American monster folklore will no doubt be leaping for their keyboards to tell me that the same word’s spelled “snoligoster” or “snollygoster” elsewhere. Yes, I know; it’s different here. (In western Maryland, for reasons I haven’t yet deciphered, the letter A is more popular than its rival vowels; the Native American name for the local mountain range, written out as “Allegheny” everywhere else, is spelled “Allegany” here and rhymes with “rainy.”) The snallygaster, as I was saying, was a dragonlike creature with huge wings, a long pointed tail, a single eye in the middle of its forehead, and octopuslike tentacles that dangled behind it as it flew. 

This remarkable apparition was apparently all over western Maryland in 1909, and then again in 1932; during both flaps, the newspapers splashed the story all over the front page of issue after issue, and everyone in the region seems to have known someone who knew someone who knew someone who just missed seeing it. Even when it met its end—it drowned, according to newspaper reports, after falling into a 2500-gallon vat of illegal whiskey in the notorious local moonshiner’s haven of Frog Hollow—its presence was evanescent:  its body dissolved in the liquor, and the government agents who were raiding the operation when the snallygaster met its doom proceeded to break open the vat and spill the contents, rather than bottling and selling what would surely have been the most unique beverage ever produced by the region’s less-than-legal distilling industry.

Snallygasters thus share in the most important characteristic of the “fearsome critters” of American monster folklore:  everybody knows about them, but you’ll never actually meet anybody who’s seen one. That characteristic isn’t unique to monsters. It also features in the peak oil scene, and in particular in one of the more common habits of that scene, especially though not only around this time of year. That’s as much justification as you’ll get for the cameo appearance of snallygasters in this week’s post—well, beyond the fact that snallygasters, and local folklore generally, deserve more attention than they usually get these days—because it’s mostly these habits that I want to talk about this week.

The weeks to either side of January 1 each year, as regular readers of peak oil blogs will have noted long since, are festooned with predictions about what’s going to happen in the year to come. That habit’s not limited to the peak oil scene, to be sure, but a curious feature is shared by many peak oil blogs: the prophecies that pop up during this annual orgy of prognostication are quite often the same ones that appeared the previous year, and the year before that, and so on back as far as the archives go. Most of those predictions, furthermore, flopped—that is, the events so confidently predicted did not happen within the time frame the prediction assigned them—but reflections on that awkward reality in these same blogs are about as rare as snallygasters singing duets in your back yard.

It’s high time for this bad habit to get drowned in a tub of moonshine once and for all. Those of us who talk about peak oil and the other troubles closing in on contemporary industrial civilization have precisely one thing to offer that deserves the attention of anybody else—that our ideas, and the predictions we base on them, might help others figure out what’s happening to the world around them at a time when more familiar ways of thinking aren’t providing useful guidance. If our predictions are no more accurate than those of raving maniacs, mainstream economists, and the like, nobody has any reason to listen to us. In point of fact, I’ve come to think that one of the most important reasons why the peak oil movement is all but dead in the water these days is that too many people outside it have read too many rehashes of the same failed predictions too many times, and decided that peak oil writers simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

I’d like to suggest that the lack of attention paid by peak oil authors to the failure rate of their predictions has contributed heartily to that reaction. For this reason, before I review the predictions I made in my first post of 2013 and offer some new ones for the year that’s just begun, I’m going to take a moment to discuss predictions of mine that flopped, and what I’ve learned from those flops.

The first of my failed predictions has evaded my attempts to find it in this blog’s archives, but it appeared sometime in 2007 or 2008, if I recall correctly.  I noted the skyrocketing price of oil, surveyed the claims then being made by other peak oil writers that it would just keep on zooming up forever, and argued instead that it would plateau and then decline over the course of the next few decades. I was, of course, quite wrong, but so were the people whose ideas I was challenging; the price of crude oil spiked up to just shy of $150 a barrel and then crashed at once, plunging to not much more than a fifth of that figure, before resuming a ragged upwards movement to its present level just north of $100 a barrel. The raw volatility of the oil market blindsided me, as it did many others; it was an embarrassing lesson, and one that’s shaped my efforts to estimate oil price movements since that time.

The second appeared in several of my posts and responses to comments in 2009 and 2010. At that time, I was convinced that Barack Obama would be a one-term president.  It was inconceivable to me that the Democrats who spent eight years in a state of spit-slinging fury at George W. Bush’s war crimes, abuses of civil liberties, and huge giveaways to big corporations, would fall all over themselves finding excuses for the identical actions performed by Barack Obama. It was also inconceivable to me that the Republicans, faced with the weakest Democratic incumbent in many decades, would ransack the nation to find a candidate the American people would like even less.  Of course that’s exactly what happened; a great many Democrats demonstrated with painful clarity that the respect for civil liberties and the rule of law they paraded so loudly during the Bush years was simply a cover for the usual partisan hatreds, while the Republican party showed just as clearly how detached it’s become from those Americans—a substantial majority, by the way—who don’t belong to the handful of isolated pressure groups whose vagaries currently shape GOP policy. We haven’t yet had another national election, but I can assure my readers that I won’t be making those mistakes again.

The third appeared in several posts in late 2011 and early 2012, as the hoopla around the fake-Mayan 2012 prophecy was shifting into high gear. I thought, based on historical parallels, that 2012 might turn out to be an apocalyptic frenzy for the record books, with crowds of believers gathering on hilltops to wait for December 21 to dawn and watch the Space Brothers land, or what have you.  That didn’t happen; quite the contrary, in the weeks just prior to December 21, quite a few of the big names in the 2012 scene started backpedaling on their previous insistence that some worldchanging event would surely happen that day. I’ve factored that curious turn of events into my thinking about the next big apocalyptic furore—of which more shortly.

The fourth appeared last February in one of my posts on the current fracking bubble. At that time, for a variety of reasons, I thought that the financial bubble that’s inflated around shale oil in the last few years was within a few months of a messy collapse. I remain convinced that it’s going to pop—bubbles always do, and the fracking business has all the classic signs of a speculative bubble, from the bellowing about a new era of prosperity right around the corner all the way down to the dodgy financial underpinnings—but I was obviously wrong about the timing; the month before, I’d suggested 2014 as a likely date for the inevitable crash, and I should have stuck with that estimate.

So those are the four failed predictions of mine I recalled while glancing back over the nearly eight years this blog has been in existence. There may have been others that I missed—if so, I encourage my readers to bring them up on the comments page and we’ll talk about them. Such mistakes are all but impossible to avoid when discussing something as elusive as the future, and archdruids are no more infallible than anyone else; in fact, the late head of a different Druid order once promulgated an official Dogma of Archdruidical Fallibility to declare in formal terms that he was going to make mistakes.  We don’t have any dogmas at all in the Druid order I head, but the principle still applies.

With that cautionary note in mind, let’s turn to the predictions I made at the beginning of 2013 about the year ahead. Here they are:

“I thus predict that just as 2012 looked like a remake of 2011 a little further down the curve of decline, 2013 will look a good deal like 2012, but with further worsening along the same broad array of trends and yet another round of local crises and regional disasters. The number of billion-dollar weather disasters will tick up further, as will the number of Americans who have no job—though, to be sure, the official unemployment rate and other economic statistics will be gimmicked then as now.  The US dollar, the Euro, and the world’s stock markets will still be in business at year’s end, and there will still be gas for sale in gas stations, groceries for sale in grocery stores, and more people interested in the Super Bowl than in global warming or peak oil, as 2013 gives way to 2014.

“As the year unfolds, I’d encourage my readers to watch the fracking bubble...I don’t expect the bubble to pop this year—my best guess at this point is that that’ll happen in 2014—but it’s already losing air as the ferocious decline rates experienced by fracked oil and gas wells gnaw the bottom out of the fantasy.  Expect the new year to bring more strident claims of the imminent arrival of a shiny new future of energy abundance, coupled with a steady drumbeat of bad financial news suggesting, in essence, that the major players in that end of the oil and gas industry are well and truly fracked.

“I’d also encourage my readers to watch the climate...Most of the infrastructure of industrial society was built during the period of abnormally good weather we call the twentieth century. A fair amount of it, as New York subway riders have had reason to learn, is poorly designed to handle extreme weather, and if those extremes become normal, the economics of maintaining such complex systems as the New York subways in the teeth of repeated flooding start to look very dubious indeed.  I don’t expect to see significant movements out of vulnerable coastal areas quite yet, but if 2011’s Hurricane Irene and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy turn out to have a bouncing baby sibling who decides to pay a visit to the Big Apple in 2013, 2014 might see the first businesses relocating further inland, perhaps to the old mill towns of the southern Hudson valley and the eastern end of Pennsylvania, perhaps further still.

“That’s speculative. What isn’t speculative is that all the trends that have been driving the industrial world down the arc of the Long Descent are still in play, and so are all the parallel trends that are pushing America’s global empire along its own trajectory toward history’s dustbin  Those things haven’t changed; even if anything could be done about them, which is far from certain, nothing is being done about them; indeed, outside of a handful of us on the fringes of contemporary culture, nobody is even talking about the possibility that something might need to be done about them.  That being the case, it’s a safe bet that the trends I’ve sketched out will continue unhindered, and give us another year of the ordinary phenomena of slowly accelerating decline and fall.”

The bouncing baby sibling of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy didn’t put in an appearance, and so the first tentative shifts of businesses and population inland from the vulnerable Atlantic coast will have to wait a few more years. Other than that, I think it’s fair to say that once again, I called it.

My prediction for 2014, in turn, is that we’ll see more of the same:  another year, that is, of uneven but continued downward movement along the same arc of decline and fall, while official statistics here in the United States will be doctored even more extravagantly than before to manufacture a paper image of prosperity. The number of Americans trying to survive without a job will continue to increase, the effective standard of living for most of the population will continue to decline, and what used to count as the framework of ordinary life in this country will go on unraveling a thread at a time. Even so, the dollar, the Euro, the stock market, and the Super Bowl will still be functioning as 2015 begins; there will still be gas in the gas pumps and food on grocery store shelves, though fewer people will be able to afford to buy either one.

The fracking bubble has more than lived up to last year’s expectations, filling the mass media with vast amounts of meretricious handwaving about the coming era of abundance: the same talk, for all practical purposes, that surrounded the equally delusional claims made for the housing bubble, the tech bubble, and so on all the way back to the Dutch tulip bubble of 1637. That rhetoric will prove just as dishonest as its predecessors, and the supposed new era of prosperity will come tumbling back down to earth once the bubble pops, taking a good chunk of the American economy with it. Will that happen in 2014? That’s almost impossible to know in advance. Timing the collapse of a bubble is one of the trickiest jobs in economic life; no less a mind than Isaac Newton’s was caught flatfooted by the collapse of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, and the current bubble is far more opaque. My guess is that the collapse will come toward the end of 2014, but it could have another year or so to run first.

It’s probably a safe bet that weather-related disasters will continue to increase in number and severity. If we get a whopper on the scale of Katrina or Sandy, watch the Federal response; it’s certain to fall short of meeting the needs of the survivors and their communities, but the degree to which it falls short will be a useful measure of just how brittle and weak the national government has become. One of these years—just possibly this year, far more likely later on—that weakness is going to become one of the crucial political facts of our time, and responses to major domestic disasters are among the few good measures we’ll have of how close we are to the inevitable crisis.

Meanwhile, what won’t happen is at least as important as what will. Despite plenty of enthusiastic pronouncements and no shortage of infomercials disguised as meaningful journalism, there will be no grand breakthroughs on the energy front. Liquid fuels—that is to say, petroleum plus anything else that can be thrown into a gas tank—will keep on being produced at something close to 2013’s rates, though the fraction of the total supply that comes from expensive alternative fuels with lower net energy and higher production costs will continue to rise, tightening a noose around the neck of every other kind of economic activity. Renewables will remain as dependent on government subsidies as they’ve been all along, nuclear power will remain dead in the water, fusion will remain a pipe dream, and more exotic items such as algal biodiesel will continue to soak up their quotas of investment dollars before going belly up in the usual way. Once the fracking bubble starts losing air, expect something else to be scooped up hurriedly by the media and waved around to buttress the claim that peak oil won’t happen, doesn’t matter, and so on; any of my readers who happen to guess correctly what that will be, and manage their investments accordingly, may just make a great deal of money.

Sudden world-ending catastrophes will also be in short supply in 2014, though talk about them will be anything but. The current vagaries of the apocalypse lobby probably deserve a post of their own; the short version is that another prediction of mine—that the failure of the fake-Mayan 2012 prophecy would very quickly be followed by the emergence of another date of supposedly imminent doom—has already come true, with knobs on. The new date is 2030; expect to see the same dubious logic, the same frantic cherrypicking of factoids, and the same mass production of different theories sharing only a common date, that played such important and disreputable roles in the 2012 fracas.  Since we’ve got more than a decade and a half to go before the next Nothing Happened Day arrives, there’s plenty of time for the marketing machine to get rolling before the snallygaster sings, and roll it will.

Both the grandiose breakthroughs that never happen and the equally gaudy catastrophes that never happen will thus continue to fill their current role as excuses not to think about, much less do anything about, what’s actually happening around us right now—the long ragged decline and fall of industrial civilization that I’ve called the Long Descent. Given the popularity of both these evasive moves, we can safely assume that one more thing won’t happen in 2014:  any meaningful collective response to the rising spiral of crises that’s shredding our societies and our future. As before, anything useful that’s going to happen will be the work of individuals, families, and community groups, using the resources on hand to cope with local conditions. I’ve talked at great length here, and in several of my books, about some of the things that might go into such a response, and I won’t rehash that now; we’ll be talking about much of it from another perspective in the months ahead.

There’s at least one other question about the immediate future that I plan on leaving up in the air for now, though, and it circles back to some of the points I made toward the start of this post. I’ve just noted the times in the past where my guesses about the future have been wrong, explained why they were wrong, and talked about what I learned from the experience. I then reviewed the predictions I made at the beginning of 2013, checked them against the facts, and used the results as a basis for my 2014 predictions. I’d like to encourage other writers and bloggers exploring peak oil, and the shape of the future more generally, to do the same thing right out here in public, review their successes and their flops, and talk about how their 2013 predictions worked out over the year just past.

On second thought, I think we can go further than that. Bloggers and writers in the peak oil community who make predictions, and expect those predictions to be taken seriously, owe it to their readers to subject their predictions to honest assessment once they can be compared to the facts. If it’s reasonable for us to talk about the failed predictions of cornucopians,  fusion-power advocates, and the like, and of course it is, we need to be willing to ‘fess up to our own mistakes and learn from them, rather than just making them over and over again in the fond belief that nobody will notice. Those who indulge in this latter habit are doing active harm to the cause of peak oil awareness, and it’s high time that the rest of us start pointing out that they’re not offering useful insights into the future—just engaging in a hackneyed form of science fiction useful for entertainment purposes only.

The clatter you just heard? That was the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down. It will be interesting to see whether anyone picks it up.