Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Mariner's Rule

One of the things my readers ask me most often, in response to this blog’s exploration of the ongoing decline and impending fall of modern industrial civilization, is what I suggest people ought to do about it all. It’s a valid question, and it deserves a serious answer.

Now of course not everyone who asks the question is interested in the answers I have to offer. A great many people, for example, are only interested in answers that will allow them to keep on enjoying the absurd extravagance that passed, not too long ago, for an ordinary lifestyle among the industrial world’s privileged classes, and is becoming just a little bit less ordinary with every year that slips by.  To such people I have nothing to say. Those lifestyles were only possible because the world’s industrial nations burnt through half a billion years of stored sunlight in a few short centuries, and gave most of the benefits of that orgy of consumption to a relatively small fraction of their population; now that easily accessible reserves of fossil fuels are running short, the party’s over. 

Yes, I’m quite aware that that’s a controversial statement. I field heated denunciations on a regular basis insisting that it just ain’t so, that solar energy or fission or perpetual motion or something will allow the industrial world’s privileged classes to have their planet and eat it too. Printer’s ink being unfashionable these days, a great many electrons have been inconvenienced on the internet to proclaim that this or that technology must surely allow the comfortable to remain comfortable, no matter what the laws of physics, geology, or economics have to say.  Now of course the only alternative energy sources that have been able to stay in business even in a time of sky-high oil prices are those that can count on gargantuan government subsidies to pay their operating expenses; equally, the alternatives receive an even more gigantic “energy subsidy” from fossil fuels, which make them look much more economical than they otherwise would.  Such reflections carry no weight with those whose sense of entitlement makes living with less unthinkable.

I’m glad to say that there are  fair number of people who’ve gotten past that unproductive attitude, who have grasped the severity of the crisis of our time and are ready to accept unwelcome change in order to secure a livable future for our descendants. They want to know how we can pull modern civilization out of its current power dive and perpetuate it into the centuries ahead. I have no answers for them, either, because that’s not an option at this stage of the game; we’re long past the point at which decline and fall can be avoided, or even ameliorated on any large scale.

A decade ago, a team headed by Robert Hirsch and funded by the Department of Energy released a study outlining what would have to be done in order to transition away from fossil fuels before they transitioned away from us. What they found, to sketch out too briefly the findings of a long and carefully worded study, is that in order to avoid massive disruption, the transition would have to begin twenty years before conventional petroleum production reached its peak and began to decline. There’s a certain irony in the fact that 2005, the year this study was published, was also the year when conventional petroleum production peaked; the transition would thus have had to begin in 1985—right about the time, that is, that the Reagan administration in the US and its clones overseas were scrapping the promising steps toward just such a transition.

A transition that got under way in 2005, in other words, would have been too late, and given the political climate, it probably would have been too little as well. Even so, it would have been a much better outcome than the one we got, in which most of us have spent the last ten years insisting that we don’t have to worry about depleting oilfields because fracking was going to save us all. At this point, thirty years after the point at which we would have had to get started, it’s all very well to talk about some sort of grand transition to sustainability, but the time when such a thing would have been possible came and went decades ago. We could have chosen that path, but we didn’t, and insisting thirty years after the fact that we’ve changed our minds and want a different future than the one we chose isn’t likely to make any kind of difference that matters.

So what options does that leave? In the minds of a great many people, at least in the United States, the choice that apparently comes first to mind involves buying farmland in some isolated rural area and setting up a homestead in the traditional style. Many of the people who talk enthusiastically about this option, to be sure, have never grown anything more demanding than a potted petunia, know nothing about the complex and demanding arts of farming and livestock raising, and aren’t in anything like the sort of robust physical condition needed to handle the unremitting hard work of raising food without benefit of fossil fuels; thus it’s a safe guess that in most of these cases, heading out to the country is simply a comforting daydream that serves to distract attention from the increasingly bleak prospects so many people are facing in the age of unraveling upon us.

There’s a long history behind such daydreams. Since colonial times, the lure of the frontier has played a huge role in the American imagination, providing any number of colorful inkblots onto which fantasies of a better life could be projected. Those of my readers who are old enough to remember the aftermath of the Sixties counterculture, when a great many young people followed that dream to an assortment of hastily created rural communes, will also recall the head-on collision between middle-class fantasies of entitlement and the hard realities of rural subsistence farming that generally resulted. Some of the communes survived, though many more did not; that I know of, none of the surviving ones made it without a long and difficult period of readjustment in which romantic notions of easy living in the lap of nature got chucked in favor of a more realistic awareness of just how little in the way of goods and services a bunch of untrained ex-suburbanites can actually produce by their own labor.

In theory, that process of reassessment is still open. In practice, just at the moment, I’m far from sure it’s an option for anyone who’s not already traveled far along that road. The decline and fall of modern industrial civilization, it bears repeating, is not poised somewhere off in the indefinite future, waiting patiently for us to get ready for it before it puts in an appearance; it’s already happening at the usual pace, and the points I’ve raised in posts here over the last few weeks suggest that the downward slope is probably going to get a lot steeper in the near future. As the collapse of the fracking bubble ripples out through the financial sphere, most of us are going to be scrambling to adapt, and the chances of getting everything lined up in time to move to rural property, get the necessary equipment and supplies to start farming, and get past the worst of the learning curve before crunch time arrives are not good.

If you’re already on a rural farm, in other words, by all means pursue the strategy that put you there. If your plans to get the necessary property, equipment, and skills are well advanced at this point, you may still be able to make it, but you’d probably better get a move on. On the other hand, dear reader, if your rural retreat is still off there in the realm of daydreams and good intentions, it’s almost certainly too late to do much about it, and where you are right now is probably where you’ll be when the onrushing waves of crisis come surging up and break over your head.

That being the case, are there any options left other than hiding under the bed and hoping that the end will be relatively painless? As it happens, there are.

The point that has to be understood to make sense of those options is that in the real world, as distinct from Hollywood-style disaster fantasies, the end of a civilization follows the famous rule attributed to William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”  Put another way, the impacts of decline and fall aren’t uniform; they vary in intensity over space and time, and they impact particular systems of a falling civilization at different times and in different ways.  If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and depend on the wrong systems to support you, your chances aren’t good, but the places, times, and systems that take the brunt of the collapse aren’t random. To some extent, those can be anticipated, and some of them can also be avoided.

Here’s an obvious example. Right now, if your livelihood depends on the fracking industry, the tar sands industry, or any of the subsidiary industries that feed into those, your chances of getting through 2015 with your income intact are pretty minimal.  People in those industries who got to witness earlier booms and busts know this, and a good many of them are paying off their debts, settling any unfinished business they might have, and making sure they can cover a tank of gas or a plane ticket to get back home when the bottom falls out. People in those industries who don’t have that experience to guide them, and are convinced that nothing bad can actually happen to them, are not doing these things, and are likely to end up in a world of hurt when their turn comes.

They’re not the only ones who would benefit right now from taking such steps. A very large part of the US banking and finance industry has been flying high on bloated profits from an assortment of fracking-related scams, ranging from junk bonds through derivatives to exotic financial fauna such as volumetric production payments. Now that the goose that laid the golden eggs is bobbing feet upwards in a pond of used fracking fluid, the good times are coming to a sudden stop, and that means sharply reduced income for those junior bankers, brokers, and salespeople who can keep their jobs, and even more sharply reduced prospects for those who don’t.

They’ve got plenty of company on the chopping block.  The entire retail sector in the US is already in trouble, with big-box stores struggling for survival and shopping malls being abandoned, and the sharp economic downturn we can expect as the fracking bust unfolds will likely turn that decline into freefall, varying in intensity by region and a galaxy of other factors. Those who brace themselves for a hard landing now are a good deal more likely to make it than those who don’t, and those who have the chance to jump to something more stable now would be well advised to make the leap.

That’s one example; here’s another. I’ve written here in some detail about how anthropogenic climate change will wallop North America in the centuries ahead of us. One thing that’s been learned from the last few years of climate vagaries is that North America, at least, is shifting in exactly the way paleoclimatic data would suggest—more or less the same way it did during warm periods over the last ten or twenty million years. The short form is that the Southwest and mountain West are getting baked to a crackly crunch under savage droughts; the eastern Great Plains, Midwest, and most of the South are being hit by a wildly unstable climate, with bone-dry dry years alternating with exceptionally soggy wet ones; while the Appalachians and points eastward have been getting unsteady temperatures but reliable rainfall. Line up your choice of subsistence strategies next to those climate shifts, and if you still have the time and resources to relocate, you have some idea where to go.

All this presumes, of course, that what we’re facing has much more in common with the crises faced by other civilizations on their way to history’s compost heap than it does with the apocalyptic fantasies so often retailed these days as visions of the immediate future. I expect to field a flurry of claims that it just ain’t so, that everything I’ve just said is wasted breath because some vast and terrible whatsit will shortly descend on the whole world and squash us like bugs. I can utter that prediction with perfect confidence, because I’ve been fielding such claims over and over again since long before this blog got started. All the dates by which the world was surely going to end have rolled past without incident, and the inevitable cataclysms have pulled one no-show after another, but the shrill insistence that something of the sort really will happen this time around has shown no sign of letting up. Nor will it, since the unacceptable alternative consists of taking responsibility for doing something about the future.

Now of course I’ve already pointed out that there’s not much that can be done about the future on the largest scale. As the fracking bubble implodes, the global economy shudders, the climate destabilizes, and a dozen other measures of imminent crisis head toward the red zone on the gauge, it’s far too late in the day for much more than crisis management on a local and individual level. Even so, crisis management is a considerably more useful response than sitting on the sofa daydreaming about the grandiose project that’s certain to save us or the grandiose cataclysm that’s certain to annihilate us—though these latter options are admittedly much more comfortable in the short term.

What’s more, there’s no shortage of examples in relatively recent history to guide the sort of crisis management I have in mind. The tsunami of discontinuities that’s rolling toward us out of the deep waters of the future may be larger than the waves that hit the Western world with the coming of the First World War in 1914, the Great Depression in 1929, or the Second World War in 1939, but from the perspective of the individual, the difference isn’t as vast as it might seem. In fact, I’d encourage my readers to visit their local public libraries and pick up books about the lived experience of those earlier traumas. I’d also encourage those with elderly relatives who still remember the Second World War to sit down with them over a couple of cups of whatever beverage seems appropriate, and ask about what it was like on a day-by-day basis to watch their ordinary peacetime world unravel into chaos.

I’ve had the advantage of taking part in such conversations, and I’ve also done a great deal of reading about historical crises that have passed below the horizon of living memory. There are plenty of lessons to be gained from such sources, and one of the most important also used to be standard aboard sailing ships in the days before steam power. Sailors in those days had to go scrambling up the rigging at all hours and in all weathers to set, reef, or furl sails; it was not an easy job—imagine yourself up in the rigging of a tall ship in the middle of a howling storm at night, clinging to tarred ropes and slick wood and trying to get a mass of wet, heavy, wind-whipped canvas to behave, while below you the ship rolls from side to side and swings you out over a raging ocean and back again. If you slip and you’re lucky, you land on deck with a pretty good chance of breaking bones or worse; if you slip and you’re not lucky, you plunge straight down into churning black water and are never seen again.

The rule that sailors learned and followed in those days was simple: “One hand for yourself, one hand for the ship.” Every chore that had to be done up there in the rigging could be done by a gang of sailors who each lent one hand to the effort, so the other could cling for dear life to the nearest rope or ratline. Those tasks that couldn’t be done that way, such as hauling on ropes, took place down on the deck—the rigging was designed with that in mind. There were emergencies where that rule didn’t apply, and even with the rule in place there were sailors who fell from the rigging to their deaths, but as a general principle it worked tolerably well.

I’d like to propose that the same rule might be worth pursuing in the crisis of our age. In the years to come, a great many of us will face the same kind of scramble for survival that so many others faced in the catastrophes of the early 20th century. Some of us won’t make it, and some will have to face the ghastly choice between sheer survival and everything else they value in life. Not everyone, though, will land in one or the other of those categories, and many those who manage to stay out of them will have the chance to direct time and energy toward the broader picture.

Exactly what projects might fall into that latter category will differ from one person to another, for reasons that are irreducibly personal. I’m sure there are plenty of things that would motivate you to action in desperate times, dear reader, that would leave me cold, and of course the reverse is also true—and in times of crisis, of the kind we’re discussing, it’s personal factors of that sort that make the difference, not abstract considerations of the sort we might debate here. I’ll be discussing a few of the options in upcoming posts, but I’d also encourage readers of this blog to reflect on the question themselves: in the wreck of industrial civilization, what are you willing to make an effort to accomplish, to defend, or to preserve?

In thinking about that, I’d encourage my readers to consider the traumatic years of the early 20th century as a model for what’s approaching us. Those who were alive when the first great wave of dissolution hit in 1914 weren’t facing forty years of continuous cataclysm; as noted here repeatedly, collapse is a fractal process, and unfolds in real time as a sequence of crises of various kinds separated by intervals of relative calm in which some level of recovery is possible. It’s pretty clear that the first round of trouble here in the United States, at least, will be a major economic crisis; at some point not too far down the road, the yawning gap between our senile political class and the impoverished and disaffected masses promises the collapse of politics as usual and a descent into domestic insurgency or one of the other standard patterns by which former democracies destroy themselves; as already noted, there are plenty of other things bearing down on us—but after an interval, things will stabilize again.

Then it’ll be time to sort through the wreckage, see what’s been saved and what can be recovered, and go on from there. First, though, we have a troubled time to get through.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

March of the Squirrels

Prediction is a difficult business at the best of times, but the difficulties seem to change from one era to another. Just now, at least for me, the biggest challenge is staying in front of the headlines. So far, the crash of 2015 is running precisely to spec. Smaller companies in the energy sector are being hammered by the plunging price of oil, while the banking industry insists that it’s not in trouble—those of my readers who recall identical expressions of misplaced confidence on the part of bankers in news stories just before the 2008 real estate crash will know just how seriously to take such claims.

The shiny new distractions disguised as energy breakthroughs I mentioned here two weeks ago have also started to show up. A glossy puff piece touting oceanic thermal energy conversion (OTEC), a white-elephant technology which was tested back in the 1970s and shown to be hopelessly uneconomical, shared space in the cornucopian end of the blogosphere over the last week with an equally disingenuous puff piece touting yet another rehash of nuclear fission as the answer to our energy woes. (Like every fission technology, of course, this one will be safe, clean, and affordable until someone actually tries to build it.)

No doubt there will shortly be other promoters scrambling for whatever government subsidies and private investment funds might be available for whatever revolutionary new energy breakthrough (ahem) will take the place of hydrofractured shales as America’s favorite reason to do nothing. I admit to a certain feeling of disappointment, though, in the sheer lack of imagination displayed so far in that competition. OTEC and molten-salt fission reactors were already being lauded as America’s energy salvation back when I was in high school: my junior year, I think it was, energy was the topic du jour for the local high school debate league, and we discussed those technologies at length. So did plenty of more qualified people, which is why both of them—and quite a few other superficially plausible technologies—never made it off the drawing board.

Something else came in for discussion that same year, and it’s a story with more than a little relevance to the current situation. A team from another school in the south Seattle suburbs had a brainstorm, did some frantic research right before a big debate tournament, and showed up with data claiming to prove that legions of squirrels running in squirrel cages, powering little generators, could produce America’s electricity. Since no one else happened to have thought of that gimmick, none of the other teams had evidence to refute them, and they swept the tournament. By the next tournament, of course, everyone else had crunched the numbers and proceeded to stomp the squirrel promoters, but for years to come the phrase “squirrel case” saw use in local debate circles as the standard term for a crackpot proposal backed with seemingly plausible data.

The OTEC plants and molten-salt reactors currently being hawked via the media are squirrel cases in exactly the same sense; they sound plausible as long as you don’t actually crunch the numbers and see whether they’re economically and thermodynamically viable. The same thing was true of the fracking bubble that’s messily imploding around us right now, not to mention the ethanol and biodiesel projects, the hydrogen economy, and the various other glittery excuses that have occupied so much useless space in the collective conversation of our time. So, it has to be said, do the more enthusiastic claims being made for renewable energy just now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of renewable energy. When extracting fossil carbon from the earth stops being economically viable—a point that may arrive a good deal sooner than many people expect—renewables are what we’ll have left, and the modest but real energy inputs that can be gotten from renewable sources when they don’t receive energy subsidies from fossil fuels could make things significantly better for our descendants. The fact remains that in the absence of subsidies from fossil fuels, renewables won’t support the absurdly extravagant energy consumption that props up what passes for an ordinary middle class lifestyle in the industrial world these days.

That’s the pterodactyl in the ointment, the awkward detail that most people even in the greenest of green circles don’t want to discuss. Force the issue into a conversation, and one of the more common responses you’ll get is the exasperated outburst “But there has to be something.” Now of course this simply isn’t true; no law of nature, no special providence, no parade of marching squirrels assures us that we can go ahead and use as much energy as we want in the serene assurance that more will always be waiting for us. It’s hard to think of a more absurd delusion, and the fact that a great many people making such claims insist on their superior rationality and pragmatism just adds icing to the cake.

Let’s go ahead and say it in so many words: there doesn’t have to be a replacement for fossil fuels. In point of fact, there’s good reason to think that no such replacement exists anywhere in the small corner of the universe accessible to us, and once fossil fuels are gone, the rest of human history will be spent in a world that doesn’t have the kind of lavish energy resources we’re used to having. Concentrations of energy, like all other natural resources, follow what’s known as the power law, the rule—applicable across an astonishingly broad spectrum of phenomena—that whatever’s ten times as concentrated is approximately ten times as rare. At the dawn of the industrial age, the reserves of fossil fuel in the Earth’s crust were the richest trove of stored energy on the planet, and of course fossil fuel extraction focused on the richest and most easily accessible prizes first, just as quickly as they could be found.

Those are gone now. Since 2005, when conventional petroleum production peaked worldwide, the industrial world has been engaged in what amounts to a frantic game of make-believe, pretending that scraping the bottom of the oil barrel proves that the barrel is still full. Every half-baked scheme for producing liquid fuels got flooded with as much cheap credit as its promoters could squander. Some of those—biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol come to mind—turned out to be money pits so abysmal that even a tide of freshly printed money couldn’t do much more than gurgle on the way down; others—above all, shale fracking and tar sand mining—were able to maintain a pretense of profitability for a while, with government subsidies, junk bonds, loans from clueless banks, and round after round of economic stimulus from central banks over much of the world serving to prop up industries that, in the final analysis, were never economically viable in the first place.

The collapse in the price of oil that began this June put paid to that era of make-believe. The causes of the oil crash are complex, but back of them all, I suggest, is a straightforward bit of economics that almost everyone’s been trying to avoid for a decade now.  To maintain economic production at any given level, the global economy has to produce enough real wealth—not, please note, enough money, but enough actual goods and services—to cover resource extraction, the manufacture and replacement of the whole stock of nonfinancial capital goods, and whatever level of economic waste is considered socially and politically necessary. If the amount of real wealth needed to keep extracting resources at a given rate goes up steeply, the rest of the economy won’t escape the consequences: somewhere or other, something has to give.

The economic history of the last decade is precisely the story of what gave in what order, or to put it another way, how the industrial world threw everything in sight under the bus to keep liquid fuel production around its 2005 peak. Infrastructure was abandoned to malign neglect, the last of the industrial world’s factory jobs got offshored to Third World sweatshops, standards of living for most people dropped steadily—well, you can fill in the blanks as well as I can. Consumption remained relatively high only because central banks flooded the global economy with limitless cheap credit, while the US government filled the gap between soaring government expenditures and flat or shrinking tax receipts by the simple equivalent of having the Fed print enough money each month to cover the federal deficit. All these things were justified by the presupposition that the global economy was just going through a temporary rough patch, and normal growth would return any day now.

But normal growth has not returned. It’s not going to return, either, because it was only “normal” in an era when cheap abundant fossil fuels greased the wheels of every kind of economic activity. As I noted in a blog post here back in 2007, the inevitable consequence of soaring oil prices is what economists call demand destruction: less formally, the process by which people who can’t afford oil stop using it, bringing the price back down. Since what’s driving the price of oil up isn’t merely market factors, but the hard geological realities of depletion, not everyone who got forced out of the market when the price was high can get back into it when the price is low—gas at $2 a gallon doesn’t matter if your job scavenging abandoned houses doesn’t pay enough for you to cover the costs of a car, and let’s not even talk about how much longer the local government can afford to maintain streets in driveable condition.

Demand destruction sounds very abstract. In practice, though, it’s all too brutally concrete: a rising tide of job losses, business failures, slumping standards of living, cutbacks to every kind of government service at every level, and so on down the litany of decline that’s become part of everyday life in the industrial world over the last decade—leaving aside, that is, the privileged few who have been sheltered from those changes so far. Unless I miss my guess, we’re going to see those same changes shift into overdrive in the months and years ahead. The attempt to boost the world out of its deepening slump by flooding the planet with cheap credit has failed; the global economy is choking on a supersized meal of unpayable IOUs and failed investments; stock markets and other venues for the exchange of paper wealth are so thoroughly gimmicked that they’ve become completely detached from the real economy of goods and services, and the real economy is headed south in a hurry.

Those unwelcome realities are going to constrain any attempt by the readers of this blog to follow up on the proposal I made in last week’s post, and take constructive action in the face of the crisis that’s now upon us. The energy situation here in the US could have been helped substantially if conservation measures and homescale renewables had received any kind of significant support from the oh-so-allegedly-green Democratic party, back when it still had enough clout in Congress to matter; the economic situation would be nowhere near as dire if governments and central banks had bitten the bullet and dealt with the crisis of our time in 2008 or thereafter, rather than papering things over with economic policies that assumed that enough money could negate the laws of physics and geology. At this point, it’s much too late for any sort of collective action on either of those fronts—and of course the political will needed to do anything meaningful about either one went missing in action at the end of the 1970s and hasn’t been seen since.

Thus all of us will have to cope with a world in which the cost of energy suffers from drastic and economically devastating swings, and the sort of localized infrastructure that could cushion the impact of those swings wasn’t built in time. All of us will also have to cope with a global economy in disarray, in which bank failures, currency crises, credit shortages, and crisis measures imposed by government fiat will take the place of the familiar workings of a market economy. Those are baked into the cake at this point, and what individuals, families, and community groups will be able to do in the years ahead will be constrained by the limits those transformations impose.

Those of my readers who still have a steady income and a home they expect to be able to keep would still be well advised to doublecheck their insulation and weatherstripping, install solar water heating and other homescale renewable energy technologies, and turn the back lawn into a vegetable garden with room for a chicken coop, if by any chance they haven’t taken these sensible steps already.  A great many of my readers don’t have such options, and at this point, it may be a long time before such options are readily available again. This is crunch time, folks; unless I’m very much mistaken, we’re on the brink of a historical inflection point like the ones in 1789 and 1914, one of the watersheds of time after which nothing will ever be the same again.

There’s still much that can be done in other spheres, and I’ll be discussing some of those things in upcoming posts. In terms of energy and the economy, though, I suspect that for a lot of us, the preparations we’re going to be able to make are the ones we’ve already made, and a great many people whose plans depend on having a stable income and its associated perks and privileges may find themselves scrambling for options when the unraveling of the economy leaves them without one. Those of my readers who have been putting off the big changes that might make them more secure in hard times may be facing the hard decision of making those changes now, in a hurry, or facing the crisis of our age in the location and situation they’re in right now. Those who’ve gone ahead and made the changes—well, you know as well as I do that it’s time to review your plans, doublecheck the details, batten down the hatches and get ready to weather the storm.

One of the entertainments to be expected as the year draws on and the crisis bears down on us all, though, is a profusion of squirrel cases of the sort discussed toward the beginning of this essay. It’s an interesting regularity of history that the closer to disaster a society in decline becomes, the more grandiose, triumphalist, and detached from the grubby realities its fantasies generally get. I’m thinking here of the essay on military affairs from the last years of the Roman world that’s crammed full of hopelessly unworkable war machines, and of the final, gargantuan round of Mayan pyramids built on the eve of the lowland classic collapse. The habit of doubling down in the face of self-induced catastrophe seems to be deeply engrained in the human psyche, and I don’t doubt for a moment that we’ll see some world-class examples of the phenomenon in the years immediately ahead.

That said, the squirrel cases mentioned earlier—the OTEC and molten-salt fission proposals—suffer from a disappointing lack of imagination. If our society is going to indulge in delusional daydreams as it topples over the edge of crisis, couldn’t we at least see some proposals that haven’t been rehashed since I was in high school?  I can only think of one such daydream that has the hallucinatory quality our current circumstances deserve; yes, that would be the proposal, being made quite seriously in the future-oriented media just now, that we can solve all our energy problems by mining helium-3 on the Moon and ship it to Earth to fuel fusion power plants we have absolutely no idea how to build yet. As faith-based cheerleading for vaporware, which is of course what those claims are, they set a very high standard—but it’s a standard that will doubtless be reached and exceeded in due time.

That said, I think the media may need some help launching the march of the squirrels just mentioned, and the readers of this blog proved a good long time ago that they have more than enough imagination to meet that pressing need.

Therefore I’m delighted to announce a new contest here on The Archdruid Report, the Great Squirrel Case Challenge of 2015. The goal is to come up with the most absurd new energy technology you can think of, and write either the giddily dishonest corporate press release or the absurdly sycophantic media article announcing it to the world. If you or a friend can Photoshop an image or two of your proposed nonsolution to the world’s energy needs, that’s all the better. Post your press release or media article on your blog if you have one; if you don’t, you can get one for free from Blogspot or Wordpress. Post a link to your piece in the comments section of this blog.

Entries must be posted here by February 28, 2012.  Two winners—one picked by me, the other by vote of the registered members of the Green Wizards forum—will receive signed complimentary copies of my forthcoming book After Progress. I can’t speak for the forum, which will doubtless have its own criteria, but I’ll be looking for a winsome combination of sheer absurdity with the sort of glossy corporate presentation that frames so many absurd statements these days. (Hint: it’s not against the rules to imitate real press releases and media articles.)

As for the wonderful new energy breakthrough you’ll be lauding so uncritically, why, that’s up to you. Biodiesel plants using investment bankers as their primary feedstock? A vast crank hooked to the Moon, running a global system of belts and pulleys? An undertaking of great energy profit, to misquite the famous ad from the South Sea Bubble, but no one to know what it is? Let your imagination run wild; no matter how giddy you get, as the failure of the fracking bubble becomes impossible to ignore, the mass media and a great many of our fellow hominids are go much further along the track of the marching squirrels than you will.

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In not unrelated news, I’m delighted to report that the second volume of stories to come out of this blog’s 2014 Space Bats challenge is now available in ebook formats, and will shortly be out in print as well. After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis features a dozen original short stories set in the near future, as industrial civilization slams face first into the limits to growth. Those of my readers who followed the original contest already know that this is a first-rate collection of deindustrial SF; as for the rest of you—why, youre in for a treat. Click here to order a copy.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A Camp Amid the Ruins

Well, the Fates were apparently listening last week. As I write this, stock markets around the world are lurching through what might just be the opening moves of the Crash of 2015, whipsawed by further plunges in the price of oil and a range of other bad economic news; amid a flurry of layoffs and dropping rig counts, the first bankruptcy in the fracking industry has been announced, with more on their way; gunfire in Paris serves up a brutal reminder that the rising spiral of political violence I traced in last week’s post is by no means limited to North American soil.  The cheerleaders of business as usual in the media are still insisting at the top of their lungs that America’s new era of energy independence is still on its way; those of my readers who recall the final days of the housing bubble that burst in 2008, or the tech-stock bubble that popped in 2000, will recognize a familiar tone in the bluster.

It’s entirely possible, to be sure, that central banks and governments will be able to jerry-rig another round of temporary supports for the fraying architecture of the global economy, and postpone a crash—or at least drag out the agony a bit longer. It’s equally possible that other dimensions of the crisis of our age can be forestalled or postponed by drastic actions here and now.  That said, whether the process is fast or slow, whether the crunch hits now or a bit further down the road, the form of technic society I’ve termed abundance industrialism is on its way out through history’s exit turnstile, and an entire world of institutions and activities familiar to all of us is going with it.

It doesn’t require any particular genius or prescience to grasp this, merely the willingness to recognize that if something is unsustainable, sooner or later it won’t be sustained. Of course that’s the sticking point, because what can’t be sustained at this point is the collection of wildly extravagant energy- and resource-intensive habits that used to pass for a normal lifestyle in the world’s industrial nations, and has recently become just a little less normal than it used to be. Those lifestyles, and most of what goes with them, only existed in the first place because a handful of the world’s nations burned through half a billion years of fossil sunlight in a few short centuries, and stripped the planet of most of its other concentrated resource stocks into the bargain.

That’s the unpalatable reality of the industrial era. Despite the rhetoric of universal betterment that was brandished about so enthusiastically by the propagandists of the industrial order, there were never enough of any of the necessary resources to make that possible for more than a small fraction of the world’s population, or for more than a handful of generations. Nearly all the members of our species who lived outside the industrial nations, and a tolerably large number who resided within them, were expected to carry most of the costs of reckless resource extraction and ecosystem disruption while receiving few if any of the benefits. They’ll have plenty of company shortly: abundance industrialism is winding down, but its consequences are not, and people around the world for centuries and millennia to come will have to deal with the depleted and damaged planet our actions have left them.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, and the likely aftermath of the industrial age won’t do anything to improve the taste. Over the last six months or so, I’ve drawn on the downside trajectories of other failed civilizations to sketch out how that aftermath will probably play out here in North America: the disintegration of familiar political and economic structures, the rise of warband culture, the collapse of public order, and the failure of cultural continuity, all against a backdrop of rapid and unpredictable climate change, rising seas, and the appearance of chemical and radiological dead zones created by some of industrial civilization’s more clueless habits. It’s an ugly picture, and the only excuse I have for that unwelcome fact is that falling civilizations look like that.

The question that remains, though, is what we’re going to do about it all.

I should say up front that by “we” I don’t mean some suitably photogenic collection of Hollywood heroes and heroines who just happen to have limitless resources and a bag of improbable inventions at their disposal. I don’t mean a US government that has somehow shaken off the senility that affects all great powers in their last days and is prepared to fling everything it has into the quest for a sustainable future. Nor do I mean a coterie of gray-skinned aliens from Zeta Reticuli, square-jawed rapists out of Ayn Rand novels, or some other source of allegedly superior beings who can be counted upon to come swaggering onto the scene to bail us out of the consequences of our own stupidity. They aren’t part of this conversation; the only people who are, just now, are the writer and the readers of this blog.

Within those limits, the question I’ve posed may seem preposterous. I grant that for a phenomenon that practically defines the far edges of the internet—a venue for lengthy and ornately written essays about wildly unpopular subjects by a clergyman from a small and distinctly eccentric fringe religion—The Archdruid Report has a preposterously large readership, and one that somehow manages to find room for a remarkably diverse and talented range of people, bridging some of the ideological and social barriers that divide  industrial society into so many armed and uncommunicative camps. Even so, the regular readership of this blog could probably all sit down at once in a football stadium and still leave room for the hot dog vendors. Am I seriously suggesting that this modest and disorganized a group can somehow rise up and take meaningful action in the face of so vast a process as the fall of a civilization?

One of the things that gives that question an ironic flavor is that quite a few people are making what amounts to the same claim in even more grandiose terms than mine. I’m thinking here of the various proposals for a Great Transition of one kind or another being hawked at various points along the social and political spectrum these days. I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more from those in the months and years immediately ahead, as the collapse of the fracking bubble forces people to find some other excuse for insisting that they can have their planet and eat it too.

Part of the motivation behind the grand plans just mentioned is straightforwardly financial. One part of what drove the fracking bubble along the classic trajectory—up with the rocket, down with the stick—was a panicked conviction on the part of a great many people that some way had to be found to keep industrial society’s fuel tanks somewhere on the near side of that unwelcome letter E. Another part of it, though, was the recognition on the part of a somewhat smaller but more pragmatic group of people tht the panicked conviction in question could be turned into a sales pitch. Fracking wasn’t the only thing that got put to work in the time-honored process of proving Ben Franklin’s proverb about a fool and his money; fuel ethanol, biodiesel, and large-scale wind power also had their promoters, and sucked up their share of government subsidies and private investment.

Now that fracking is falling by the wayside, there’ll likely be a wild scramble to replace it in the public eye as the wave of the energy future. The nuclear industry will doubtless be in there—nuclear power is one of the most durable subsidy dumpsters in modern economic life, and the nuclear industry has had to become highly skilled at slurping from the government teat, since nuclear power isn’t economically viable otherwise—it’s worth recalling that no nation on earth has been able to create or maintain a nuclear power program without massive ongoing government subsidies. No doubt we’ll get plenty of cheerleading for fusion, satellite-based solar power, and other bits of high-end vaporware, too.

Still, I suspect the next big energy bubble is probably going to come from the green end of things. Over the last few years, there’s been no shortage of claims that renewable resources can pick right up where fossil fuels leave off and keep the lifestyles of today’s privileged middle classes intact. Those claims tend to be long on enthusiasm and cooked numbers and short on meaningful assessment, but then that same habit didn’t slow the fracking boom any; we can expect to see a renewed flurry of claims that solar power must be sustainable because the sticker price has gone down, and similar logical non sequiturs. (By the same logic, the internet must be sustainable if you can pay your monthly ISP bill by selling cute kitten photos on eBay.  In both cases, the sprawling and almost entirely fossil-fueled infrastructure of mines, factories, supply chains, power grids, and the like, has been left out of the equation, as though those don’t have to be accounted for: typical of the blindness to whole systems that pervades so much of contemporary culture.)

It’s not enough for an energy technology to be green, in other words; it also has to work.  It’s probably safe to assume that that point is going to be finessed over and over again, in a galaxy of inventive ways,  as the fracking bubble goes whereved popped financial bubbles go when they die. The point that next to nobody wants to confront is the one made toward the beginning of this week’s post: if something is unsustainable, sooner or later it won’t be sustained—and what’s unsustainable in this case isn’t simply fossil fuel production and consumption, it’s the lifestyles that were made possible by the immensely abundant and highly concentrated energy supply we got from fossil fuels.

You can’t be part of the solution if your lifestyle is part of the problem. I know that those words are guaranteed to make the environmental equivalent of limousine liberals gasp and clutch their pearls or their Gucci ties, take your pick, but there it is; it really is as simple as that. There are at least two reasons why that maxim needs to be taken seriously. On the one hand, if you’re clinging to an unsustainable lifestyle in the teeth of increasingly strong economic and environmental headwinds, you’re not likely to be able to spare the money, the free time, or any of the other resources you would need to contribute to a solution; on the other, if you’re emotionally and financially invested in keeping an unsustainable lifestyle, you’re likely to put preserving that lifestyle ahead of things that arguably matter more, like leaving a livable planet for future generations.

Is the act of letting go of unsustainable lifestyles the only thing that needs to be done? Of course not, and in the posts immediately ahead I plan on talking at length about some of the other options. I’d like to suggest, though, that it’s the touchstone or, if you will, the boundary that divides those choices that might actually do some good from those that are pretty much guaranteed to do no good at all. That’s useful when considering the choices before us as individuals; it’s at least as useful, if not more so, when considering the collective options we’ll be facing in the months and years ahead, among them the flurry of campaigns, movements, and organizations that are already gearing up to exploit the crisis of our time in one way or another—and with one agenda or another.

An acronym I introduced a while back in these posts might well be worth revisiting here: LESS, which stands for “Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation.” That’s a convenient summary of the changes that have to be made to move from today’s unsustainable lifestyles to ways of living that will be viable when today’s habits of absurd extravagance are fading memories. It’s worth taking a moment to unpack the acronym a little further, and see what it implies.

“Less energy” might seem self-evident, but there’s more involved here than just turning off unneeded lights and weatherstripping your windows and doors—though those are admittedly good places to start. A huge fraction of the energy consumed by a modern industrial society gets used indirectly to produce, supply, and transport goods and services; an allegedly “green” technological device that’s made from petroleum-based plastics and exotic metals taken from an open-pit mine in a Third World country, then shipped halfway around the planet to the air-conditioned shopping mall where you bought it, can easily have a carbon footprint substantially bigger than some simpler item that does the same thing in a less immediately efficient way. The blindness to whole systems mentioned earlier has to be overcome in order to make any kind of meaningful sense of energy issues: a point I’ll be discussing further in an upcoming post here.

“Less stuff” is equally straightforward on the surface, equally subtle in its ramifications. Now of course it’s hardly irrelevant that ours is the first civilization in the history of the planet to have to create an entire industry of storage facilities to store the personal possessions that won’t fit into history’s biggest homes. That said, “stuff” includes a great deal more than the contents of your closets and storage lockers. It also includes infrastructure—the almost unimaginably vast assortment of technological systems on which the privileged classes of the industrial world rely for most of the activities of their daily lives. That infrastructure was only made possible by the deluge of cheap abundant energy our species briefly accessed from fossil fuels; as what’s left of the world’s fossil fuel supply moves deeper into depletion, the infrastructure that it created has been caught in an accelerating spiral of deferred maintenance and malign neglect; the less dependent you are on what remains, the less vulnerable you are to further systems degradation, and the more of what’s left can go to those who actually need it.

“Less stimulation” may seem like the least important part of the acronym, but in many ways it’s the most crucial point of all. These days most people in the industrial world flood their nervous systems with a torrent of electronic noise.  Much of this is quite openly intended to manipulate their thoughts and feelings by economic and political interests; a great deal more has that effect, if only by drowning out any channel of communication that doesn’t conform to the increasingly narrow intellectual tunnel vision of late industrial society. If you’ve ever noticed how much of what passes for thinking these days amounts to the mindless regurgitation of sound bites from the media, dear reader, that’s why. What comes through the media—any media—is inevitably prechewed and predigested according to someone else’s agenda; those who are interested in thinking their own thoughts and making their own decisions, rather than bleating in perfect unison with the rest of the herd, might want to keep this in mind.

It probably needs to be said that very few of us are in a position to go whole hog with LESS—though it’s also relevant that some of us, and quite possibly a great many of us, will end up doing so willy-nilly if the economic contraction at the end of the fracking bubble turns out to be as serious as some current figures suggest. Outside of that grim possibility, “less” doesn’t have to mean “none at all”—certainly not at first; for those who aren’t caught in the crash, at least, there may yet be time to make a gradual transition toward a future of scarce energy and scarce resources. Still, I’d like to suggest that any proposed response to the crisis of our time that doesn’t start with LESS simply isn’t serious.

As already noted, I expect to see a great many nonserious proposals in the months and years ahead. Those who put maintaining their comfortable lifestyles ahead of other goals will doubtless have no trouble coming up with enthusiastic rhetoric and canned numbers to support their case; certainly the promoters and cheerleaders of the soon-to-be-late fracking bubble had no difficulty at all on that score. Not too far in the future, something or other will have been anointed as the shiny new technological wonder that will save us all, or more precisely, that will give the privileged classes of the industrial world a new set of excuses for clinging to some semblance of their current lifestyles for a little while longer. Mention the growing list of things that have previously occupied that hallowed but inevitably temporary status, and you can count on either busy silence or a flustered explanation why it really is different this time.

There may not be that many of us who get past the nonserious proposals, ask the necessary but unwelcome questions about the technosavior du jour, and embrace LESS while there’s still time to do so a step at a time. I’m convinced, though, that those who manage these things are going to be the ones who make a difference in the shape the future will have on the far side of the crisis years ahead. Let go of the futile struggle to sustain the unsustainable, take the time and money and other resources that might be wasted in that cause and do something less foredoomed with them, and there’s a lot that can still be done, even in the confused and calamitous time that’s breaking over us right now. In the posts immediately ahead, as already mentioned, I’ll discuss some of the options; no doubt many of my readers will be able to think of options of their own, for that matter.

I’ve noted before more than once that the collapse of industrial society isn’t something located off in the nearer or further future; it’s something that got under way a good many years ago, has been accelerating around us for decades, and is simply hitting one of the rougher patches of the normal process of decline and fall just now. Most of the nonserious proposals just referred to start from the insistence that that can’t happen. Comforting in the short term, that insistence is a rich source of disaster and misery from any longer perspective, and the sooner each of us gets over it and starts to survey the wreckage around us, the better. Then we can make camp in the ruins, light a fire, get some soup heating in a salvaged iron pot, and begin to talk about where we can go from here.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Cold Wet Mackerel of Reality

To misuse a bit of prose from Charles Dickens, it was neither the best of times nor the worst of times, but I know very few people who will object when, a few hours from now, 2014 gets dragged off to the glue factory.  This has not been a good year for most people in the United States. By all accounts, this year’s holiday season was an economic flop of considerable scale—the US media, which normally treats cheery corporate press releases with the same enforced credulity that Pravda used to give to pronouncements from the Politburo in the Soviet era, has had to admit that Black Friday sales were down hard this year, even counting the internet—and plenty of Americans outside the echo chambers of the media have very good reasons to worry about what 2015 will bring.
 
Mind you, cheerleading of a distinctly Pravda-esque variety can still be heard from those pundits and politicians who are still convinced that people can be talked into ignoring their own experience if they can only be force-fed enough spin-doctored malarkey. That sort of enthusiasm for the glorious capitalist banker’s paradise has plenty of company just now; I’m thinking in particular of the steady drumbeat of articles and essays in the US mass media wondering aloud why so many Americans haven’t noticed the economic recovery of the last four years, and are still behaving as though there’s a recession on.

Of course there’s an explanation for that awkward fact, which is that the recovery in question never happened—outside, that is, of the abstract otherworld of numerical jugglery and spin doctoring that passes for official economic statistics these days. For most Americans, the last four years have been a bleak era of soaring expenses, shrinking incomes and benefits, rising economic insecurity, and increasingly frequent and bitter struggles with dysfunctional institutions that no longer bother even to pretend to serve the public good. That’s the reality people in the United States face when they get out of bed each morning, but it’s not a reality that’s welcome in the American mass media, so endless ingenuity has been expended in explaining why so many people in the US these days haven’t noticed the alleged economic recovery that’s allegedly burgeoning all around them.

I expect to see a good deal more of this sort of twaddle in the weeks immediately ahead, as those mass media pundits who haven’t yet trotted out their predictions for the new year get around to that annual task. For that matter, it’s doubtless safe to assume that out here on the fringes where archdruids lurk, there will be plenty of predictions of a different kind or, rather, several different kinds. There will be another round of claims that this is the year when the global economy will seize up suddenly and leave us all to starve in the dark; there will be another round of claims that this is the year when this or that or the other hot new technology will come swooping in to save the day and let the middle classes maintain their privileged lifestyles; there will be—well, those of my readers who have been following the blogosphere for any length of time can fill in the blanks themselves.

I’ve noted in previous years just how many of these latter predictions get rehashed every single January in the serene conviction that nobody will notice how often they’ve flopped before. Popular though that habit may be, it seems counterproductive to me, since—at least in theory—predictions of the sort we’re discussing is intended to be something more than light entertainment. With this in mind, I’d like to engage in the annual ritual of glancing back over the predictions I posted here at the beginning of the year now ending, and see how well I did. Here’s what I said:

“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...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.”

As I write these words, the US media is still parroting the fantasy of a fracking-driven “Saudi America” with a mindless repetitiveness that puts broken records to shame, and so the next shiny distraction disguised as a marvelous new energy breakthrough hasn’t yet been trotted out for the usual round of carefully choreographed oohs and aahs. Other than that, once again, I think it’s fair to say I called it. Continuing economic decline, check; a fracking bubble heading toward a world-class bust, check; climate-related disasters on the rise, with government interventions doing less and less to help those affected, check; and a continuing shortage of game-changing breakthroughs, world-ending catastrophes, and meaningful collective responses to the crisis of our age, check-check-check. If this were a bingo game, I’d be walking up to the front of the room with a big smile on my face.

Now of course a case could be made that I’m cheating. After all, it doesn’t take any particular insight to point out that continuing trends tend to continue, or to choose trends that are pretty clearly ongoing and predict that they’ll keep on going for another year. While this is true, it’s also part of the point I’ve been trying to make here for getting on for nine years now:  in the real world, by and large, history is what happened when you weren’t looking. Under some circumstances, sudden jarring discontinuities can hit societies like a cold wet mackerel across the face, but close attention to the decade or so before things changed routinely shows that the discontinuity itself was the product of long-established trends, and could have been anticipated if anyone was willing to do so.

That’s a particularly relevant issue just now, because the sort of long-established trends that can lead to sudden jarring discontinuities have been more and more evident in the United States in recent years, and one of the things that made 2014 so wretched for everyone outside the narrowing circle of the privileged well-to-do is precisely that several of those trends seem to be moving toward a flashpoint. I’d like to sketch out a couple of examples, because my predictions for 2015 will center on them.

The first and most obvious is the headlong collapse of the fracking bubble, which I discussed at some length in a post earlier this month. For most of the last decade, Wall Street has been using the fracking industry in all the same ways it used the real estate industry in the runup to the 2008 crash, churning out what we still laughably call “securities” on the back of a rapidly inflating speculative bubble. As the slumping price of oil kicks the props out from under the fracking boom, the vast majority of that paper—the junk bonds issued by fracking-industry firms, the securitized loans those same firms used to make up for the fact that they lost money every single quarter, the chopped and packaged shale leases, the volumetric production agreements, and all the rest of it—will revert to its actual value, which in most cases approximates pretty closely to zero.

It’s important in this context to remember that those highly insecure securities haven’t been cooped up in the financial equivalent of the dog pound where they belong; quite the contrary, they’ve gone roaming all over the neighborhood, leaving an assortment of messes behind. Banks, investment firms, pension funds, university endowments, and many other institutions in the US and abroad snapped this stuff up in gargantuan amounts, because it offered something like what used to count as a normal rate of return on investment. As a result, as the fracking boom goes belly up, it’s not just firms in the fracking industry that will be joining it in that undignified position. In the real estate bust, a great many businesses and institutions that seemingly had nothing to do with real estate found themselves in deep financial trouble; in the fracking bust, we can count on the same thing happening—and a great deal of the resulting bankruptcies, defaults, and assorted financial chaos will likely hit in 2015.

Thus one of the entertainments 2015 has in store for us is a thumping economic crisis here in the US, and in every other country that depends on our economy for its bread and butter. The scale of the crash depends on how many people bet how much of their financial future on the fantasy of an endless frack-propelled boom, but my guess is it’ll be somewhere around the scale of the 2008 real estate bust.

It probably has to be said that this doesn’t work out to the kind of fast-crash fantasy that sees the global economy grind to a sudden stop in a matter of weeks, leaving supermarket shelves bare and so on. The events of the 2008 crash proved, if there was ever any doubt on that score, that the governments of the world are willing to do whatever it takes to keep economic activity going, and if bailing out their pals in the big banks is what’s needed, hey, that’s all in a day’s work. Now of course bailing out the big banks won’t stop the bankruptcies, the layoffs, the steep cuts to pensions, the slashing of local and state government services, and the rest of it, any more than the same thing did in the wake of the 2008 crisis, but it does guarantee that the perfect storms and worst case scenarios beloved of a certain category of collapsitarian thinkers will remain imaginative fictions.

Something else that’s baked into the baby new year’s birthday cake at this point is a rising spiral of political unrest here in the United States. The mass protests over the extrajudicial executions of nonwhite Americans by police were pretty much inevitable, as pressures on the American underclass have been building toward an explosion for decades now.  There’s a certain bleak amusement to be had from watching financially comfortable white Americans come up with reasons to insist that this can’t possibly be the case, or for that matter, from hearing them contrive ways to evade the awkward fact that American police seem to have much less difficulty subduing belligerent suspects in nonlethal ways when the skins of the suspects in question are white.

Behind the killings and the protests, though, lies an explosive tangle that nobody on either side of the picket lines seems willing to address. Morale in many police departments across the United States resembles nothing so much as morale among American enlisted men in Vietnam in the last years of US involvement; after decades of budget cuts, grandstanding politicians, bungled reforms, an imploding criminal justice system, and ongoing blowback from misguided economic and social policies, a great many police officers feel that they’re caught between an enemy they can’t defeat and a political leadership that’s more than willing to throw them to the wolves for personal advantage. That the “enemy” they think they’re fighting is indistinguishable from the people they’re supposed to be protecting just adds to the list of troubling parallels.

In Vietnam, collapsing morale led to war crimes, “fragging” of officers by their own men, and worried reports to the Pentagon warning of the possibility of armed mutinies among US troops.  We haven’t yet gotten to the fragging stage this time, though the response of New York police to Mayor De Blasio suggests that we’re closer to that than most people think.  The routine extrajudicial execution of nonwhite suspects—there are scores if not hundreds of such executions a year—is the My Lai of our era, one of the few warnings that gets through the Five O’Clock Follies of the media to let the rest of us know that the guys on the front lines are cracking under the strain.

The final bitter irony here is that the federal government has been busily worsening the situation by encouraging the militarization of police departments across the United States, to the extent of equipping them with armored personnel carriers and other pieces of hardware that don’t have any possible use in ordinary policing. This is one of a good many data points that has me convinced that the US government is frantically gearing up to fight a major domestic insurgency. What’s more, they’re almost certainly going to get one. For decades now, since the post-Soviet “color revolutions,” the US has been funding and directing mass movements and rebellions against governments we don’t like, with Syria and Ukraine the two most recent beneficiaries of that strategy. We’ve made a lot of enemies in the process; it’s a safe bet that some of those enemies are eager to give us a heaping dose of our own medicine, and there are certainly nations with the means, motive, and opportunity to do just that.

Will an American insurgency funded by one or more hostile foreign powers get under way in 2015? I don’t think so, though I’m prepared to be wrong. More likely, I think, is another year of rising tensions, political gridlock, scattered gunfire, and rhetoric heated to the point of incandescence, while the various players in the game get into position for actual conflict:  the sort of thing the United States last saw in the second half of the 1850s, as sectional tensions built toward the bloody opening rounds of the Civil War.  One sign to watch for is the first outbreaks of organized violence—not just the shooting of one individual by another, but paramilitary assaults by armed groups—equivalent, more or less, to the fighting in “bleeding Kansas” that did so much to help make the Civil War inevitable.

Another thing to watch for, along the same lines, are glorifications of revolutionary violence on the part of people who haven’t previously taken that plunge. To some extent, that’s already happening. I’m thinking here especially of a recent essay by Rebecca Solnit, which starts off with lavish praise of the French Revolution: “It’s popular to say that the experiment failed,” she says, “but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy”—a statement that will surprise anyone who’s heard of Napoleon, Louis XVII, or Napoleon III. In holding up the French Revolution as a model for today’s radicals, Ms. Solnit also doesn’t happen to mention the Terror, the tyranny of the Directorate, the Napoleonic wars, or any of the other problematic outcomes of the uprising in question. That sort of selective historical memory is common in times like these, and has played a very large role in setting the stage for some of history’s most brutal tragedies.

Meanwhile, back behind these foreground events, the broader trends this blog has been tracking since its outset are moving relentlessly on their own trajectories. The world’s finite supplies of petroleum, along with most other resources on which industrial civilization depends for survival, are depleting further with each day that passes; the ecological consequences of treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer for the output of our tailpipes and smokestacks, along with all the other frankly brainless ways our civilization maltreats the biosphere that sustains us all, builds apace; caught between these two jaws of a tightening vise, industrial civilization has entered the rising spiral of crisis about which so many environmental scientists tried to warn the world back in the 1970s, and only a very small minority of people out on the fringes of our collective discourse has shown the least willingness to recognize the mess we’re in and start changing their own lives in response: the foundation, it bears repeating, of any constructive response to the crisis of our era. 

I’ve heard quite a few people insist hopefully that since 2014 was so bad, 2015 has to be better. I’m sorry to say, though, that I don’t see much likelihood of that, at least here in the US. Quite the contrary, I think that when people recall 2015, they may just think of it as the year in which America got slapped across its collective face with the cold wet mackerel of reality. Come New Year’s Day of 2016, I expect to find the dollar, the Euro, the stock market, and the Super Bowl still functioning, gas in the pumps and products for sale on the grocery store shelves—but the nation in which these things exist will have passed through a traumatic and crisis-ridden year, and the chances of avoiding an even more difficult 2016 don’t seem good just now. Still, we’ll see.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Waiting for the Sunrise

By the time many of my readers get to this week’s essay here on The Archdruid Report, it will be Christmas Day. Here in America, that means that we’re finally most of the way through one of the year’s gaudiest orgies of pure vulgar greed, the holiday shopping season, which strikes me as rather an odd way to celebrate the birth of someone whose teachings so resolutely critiqued the mindless pursuit of material goodies. If, as that same person pointed out, it’s impossible to serve both God and Mammon, the demon of wealth, it’s pretty clear which of those two personages most Americans—including no small number who claim to be Christians—really consider the reason for the season.
 
A long time before that stable in Bethlehem received its most famous tenants, though, the same day was being celebrated across much of the northern temperate zone. The reason has to do with one of those details everyone knew before the invention of electric lighting and few people remember now, the movement of the apparent point of sunrise along the eastern horizon during the year. Before the printing press made calendars ubiquitous, that was a standard way of gauging the changing seasons: the point of sunrise swings from southeast to northeast as winter in the northern hemisphere gives way to summer and from northeast back to southeast as summer gives way again to winter, and if you have a way to track the apparent motion, you can follow the yearly cycle with a fair degree of precision.

This movement is like the swing of a pendulum: it’s very fast in the middle of the arc, and slows to a dead stop on either end. That makes the spring and fall equinoxes easy to identify—if you have a couple of megaliths lined up just right, for example, the shadow of one will fall right on the foot of the other on the days of the equinoxes, and a little to one side or the other one day before or after—but the summer and winter solstices are a different matter. At those times of year, the sun seems to grind to a halt around the 17th of June or December, you wait for about a week, and then finally the sun comes up a little further south on June 25th or a little further north on December 25th, and you know for a fact that the wheel of the seasons is still turning.

That’s why Christmas is when it is. I’ve read, though I don’t have the reference handy, that shepherds in the Levant back in the day kept watch over their flocks in the fields in late summer, not in December, and so—if the New Testament narrative is to be believed—Jesus was something like four months old when the first Christmas rolled around. As far as I know, nobody knows exactly how the present date got put in place, but I suspect the old solar symbolism had a lot to do with it; in those days, the Christian church was less prone to the rigid literalism that’s become common in recent centuries, and also quite aware of seasonal and astronomical cycles—consider the complicated rules for setting the date of Easter, in which movements of the sun and moon both play a part.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about such things as the holiday shopping season stumbles toward its end and a troubled, weary, and distracted nation prepares to bid a hearty good riddance to 2014. Of course Druids generally think about such things; the seasonal cycle has had an important role in our traditions since those were revived in the eighteenth century. Even so, it’s been more on my mind than usual.  In particular, as I think about the shape of things in the world right now, what keeps coming to mind is the image of the old loremasters, waiting in the darkness at the end of a cold winter’s night to see the sunrise begin swinging back in the direction of spring.

Those of my readers who see such an image as hopelessly out of place just now have, I grant, quite a bit of evidence on their side. Most notably, the coming of 2015 marks a full decade since production of conventional petroleum worldwide hit its all-time peak and began to decline. Those who were around in the early days of the peak oil scene, as I was, will doubtless recall how often and eagerly the more optimistic members of that scene insisted that once the peak arrived, political and business interests everywhere would be forced to come to terms with the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. Once that harsh but necessary awakening took place, they argued, the transition to sustainable societies capable of living within the Earth’s annual budget of sunlight would finally get under way.

Of course that’s not what happened.  Instead, political and business interests responded to the peak by redefining what counts as crude oil, pouring just about any flammable liquid they could find into the world’s fuel tank—ethanol, vegetable oil, natural gas liquids, “dilbit” (diluted bitumen) from tar sands, you name it—while scraping the bottom of the barrel for petroleum via hydrofracturing, ultradeep offshore wells, and other extreme extraction methods. All of those require much higher inputs of fossil fuel energy per barrel produced than conventional crude does, so that a growing fraction of the world’s fossil fuel supply has had to be burned just to produce more fossil fuel. Did any whisper of this far from minor difficulty find its way into the cheery charts of “all liquids” and the extravagantly rose-colored projections of future production? Did, for example, any of the official agencies tasked with tracking fossil fuel production consider subtracting an estimate for barrels of oil equivalent used in extraction from the production figures, so that we would have at least a rough idea of the world’s net petroleum production?  Surely you jest.

The need to redirect an appreciable fraction of the world’s fossil fuel supply into fossil fuel production, in turn, had significant economic costs. Those were shown by the simultaneous presence of prolonged economic dysfunction and sky-high oil prices: a combination, please note, that last appeared during the energy crises of the 1970s, and should have served as a warning sign that something similar was afoot. Instead of paying attention, political and business interests around the world treated the abrupt fraying of the economy as a puzzling anomaly to be drowned in a vat of cheap credit—when, that is, they didn’t treat it as a public relations problem that could be solved by proclaiming a recovery that didn’t happen to exist. Economic imbalances accordingly spun out of control; paper wealth flowed away from those who actually produce goods and service into the hands of those who manipulate fiscal abstractions; the global economy was whipsawed by convulsive fiscal crisis in 2009 and 2009, and shows every sign of plunging into a comparable round of turmoil right now.

I wish I could say that the alternative energy side of the equation had responded to any of this in a way that might point toward a better future, but no such luck. With embarrassingly few exceptions, the things that got funding, or even any significant amount of discussion, were the sorts of overpriced white-elephant systems that only make economic sense in the presence of lavish government subsidies, and are utterly dependent on a technostructure that’s only viable given exactly the sort of cheap abundant fossil fuels that those systems are theoretically going to replace. Grid-tied photovoltaic systems, gargantuan wind turbines, and vast centralized solar-thermal facilities soaked up the attention and the funding, while simple, affordable, thoroughly proven technologies such as solar water heating got another decade of malign neglect. As for using less—the necessary foundation for anything approaching a sustainable future—that remained utterly taboo in polite company.

Back in 2005, a then-famous study done for the Department of Energy by a team headed by Robert Hirsch showed that to get through declining oil supplies without massive crisis, preparations for the descent would have to begin twenty years before the peak arrived. Since the peak of conventional crude oil production had already arrived in 2005, this warning was perhaps a little tardy, but a crash program focusing on conservation and the conversion of energy-intensive infrastructure to less vulnerable technologies might still have done much. Instead, we collectively wasted another decade on daydreams—and all the while, week after dreary week, the mainstream media has kept up a steady drumbeat of articles claiming to prove that this or that or the other thing has disproved peak oil. Given all this, is there any reason to expect anything other than a continuation of the same dysfunctional behavior, with the blind leading the blind until they all tumble together down the long bitter slope ahead?

As it happens, I think there is.

Part of it, oddly enough, is the steady drumbeat of articles just referred to, each claiming to have disproved peak oil once and for all. The last time the subject was shouted down, in the early 1980s, there wasn’t that kind of ongoing barrage; after a few blandly confident denunciations, the subject just got dropped from the media so hard it would have left a dent on a battleship’s armored deck, and was consigned thereafter to a memory hole straight out of George Orwell. Presumably that was the intention this time, too, but something has shifted.  In the early 1980s, when the media started spouting the same sort of cornucopian drivel they’re engaged in this time, the vast majority of the people who claimed to be concerned about energy and the environment trotted along after them with scarcely a dissenting bleat. That hasn’t happened in the present case; if I may indulge in a bit of very edgy irony here, this is one of the very few ways in which it really is different this time.

It’s worth glancing back over how that difference unfolded. To be sure, the brief heyday during which media reports took the end of the age of cheap abundant energy seriously stopped abruptly when puffing up the fracking bubble became the order of the day; the aforementioned drumbeat of alleged disproofs got going; those of us who kept on talking about peak oil started getting pressure from mainstream (that is, corporate-funded) environmentalists to drop the subject, get on board with the climate change bandwagon, and join them in the self-defeating rut that’s kept the environmental movement from accomplishing anything worthwhile for the last thirty years. In response, a certain number of bloggers and speakers who had been involved in peak oil discussions did in fact drop the subject, and those peak oil organizations that had committed themselves to a grant-funded organizational model fell on hard times. A fair number of us stayed the course, though.  Far more significantly, so did a very substantial portion of our audience.

That latter point is the thing that I find most encouraging. Over the last decade, in the teeth of constant propaganda from the mass media and a giddy assortment of other sources, the number of people in the United States and elsewhere who are aware of the ongoing decline of industrial society, who recognize the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, and who are willing to make changes in their own lives in response to these things, somehow failed to dwindle away to near-irrelevance, as it did the last time around. If anything—though I don’t have hard statistics to back this perception, just a scattering of suggestive proxy measurements—that number seems to have increased.

When I speak to audiences about catabolic collapse and the twilight of the industrial age these days, for example, I don’t get anything like as many blank looks or causal dismissals as those concepts routinely fielded even a few years ago. Books on peak oil and related topics, mine among them, remain steady sellers, and stats on this blog have zigzagged unevenly but relentlessly upwards over the years, regularly topping 300,000 page views a month this autumn. Less quantifiable but more telling, at least to me, are the shifts I’ve watched in people I know. Some who used to reject the whole idea of imminent and ongoing decline with scornful laughter have slowly come around to rueful admissions that, well, maybe we really are in trouble; others, starting from the same place, now denounce any such notion with the sort of brittle rage that you normally see in people who are losing the ability to make themselves keep believing the dogma they’ve committed themselves to defending.

Even more telling are the young people I meet who have sized up the future with cold eyes, and walked away from the officially approved options spread before them like so many snares by a society whose easy promises a great many of them no longer believe.  Each year that passes brings me more encounters with people in their late teens and twenties who have recognized that the rules that shaped their parents’ and grandparents’ lives don’t work any more, that most of the jobs they have been promised either don’t exist or won’t exist for much longer, that a college education these days is a one-way ticket to decades of debt peonage, and that most of the other  institutions that claim to be there to help them don’t have their best interests in mind.  They’re picking up crafts and skilled trades, living with their parents or with groups of other young people, and learning to get by on less, because the price of doing otherwise is more than they’re willing to pay.

More broadly, more and more people seem to be turning their backs on the American dream, or more precisely on the bleak waking nightmare into which the American dream has metastasized over the last few decades. A growing number of people have walked away from the job market and found ways to support themselves outside a mainstream economy that’s increasingly stacked against them. Even among those who are still in the belly of the beast, the sort of unthinking trust in business as usual that used to be tolerably common straight through American society is increasingly rare these days. Outside the narrowing circle of those who benefit from the existing order of society, a crisis of legitimacy is in the making, and it’s not simply the current US political system that’s facing the brunt of that crisis—it’s the entire crumbling edifice of American collective life.

That crisis of legitimacy won’t necessarily lead to better things. It could all too easily head in directions no sane person would wish to go. I’ve written here more than once about the possibility that the abject and ongoing failure of constructive leadership in contemporary America could lay the groundwork for the rise of something closely akin to the fascist regimes of Depression-era Europe, as people desperate for an alternative to the Republicratic consensus frozen into place inside the Washington DC beltway turn to a charismatic demagogue who promises to break the gridlock and bring change. Things could also go in even more destructive directions; a nation that ships tens of thousands of its young people in uniform to an assortment of Middle Eastern countries, teaches them all the latest trends in  counterinsurgency warfare, and then dumps them back home in a collapsing economy without the benefits they were promised, has only itself to blame if some of them end up applying their skills in the service of a domestic insurgency against the present US government.

Those possibilities are real, and so are a galaxy of other potential outcomes that are considerably worse than what exists in America today. That said, constructive change is also a possibility. The absurd extravagances that most Americans still think of as an ordinary standard of living were always destined to be a short-term phenomenon, and we’re decades past the point at which a descent from those giddy heights could have been made without massive disruptions; no possible combination of political, social, economic, and environmental transformations at this point can change those unwelcome facts. Even so, there’s much worth doing that can still be done. We can at least stop making things worse than they have to be; we can begin shifting, individually and collectively, to technologies and social forms that will still make sense in a world of tightly constrained energy and resource supplies; we can preserve things of value to the near, middle, and far future that might otherwise be lost; we might, given luck and hard work, be able to revive enough of the moribund traditions of American democracy and voluntary association to provide an alternative down the road to the naked rule of force and fraud.

None of that will be easy, but then all the easy options went whistling down the wind a long time ago. No doubt there will still be voices insisting that Americans can have the lifestyles to which they think they’re entitled if only this, or that, or the other thing were to happen; no doubt the collapse of the fracking bubble will be followed by some equally gaudy and dishonest set of cargo-cult rhetoric meant to convince the rubes that happy days will shortly be here again, just as soon as billions of dollars we don’t happen to have are poured down whatever the next rathole du jour happens to be. If enough of us ignore those claims and do what must be done—and “enough” in this context does not need to equal a majority, or even a large minority, of Americans—there’s still much of value that can be accomplished in the time before us.

To return to the metaphor that opened this post, that first slight shift of sunrise north along the horizon from the solstice point, faint as it is, is a reminder that winter doesn’t last forever, even though the coldest nights and the worst of the winter storms come after that point is past. In the same way, bleak as the immediate prospects may be, there can still be a future worth having on the far side of the crisis of our age, and our actions here and now can further the immense task of bringing such a future into being. In the new year, as I continue the current series of posts on the American future, I plan on talking at quite some length about some of the things that can be done and some of the possibilities that those actions might bring within reach.

And with that, I would like to wish my Christian readers a very merry Christmas, my readers of other faiths, a blessed holiday season, and to all my readers, a happy New Year.