Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Over the last few weeks, a number of regular readers of The Archdruid Report have asked me what I think about the recent plunge in the price of oil and the apparent end of the fracking bubble. That interest seems to be fairly widespread, and has attracted many of the usual narratives; the  blogosphere is full of claims that the Saudis crashed the price of oil to break the US fracking industry, or that Obama got the Saudis to crash the price of oil to punish the Russians, or what have you.
 
I suspect, for my part, that what’s going on is considerably more important. To start with, oil isn’t the only thing that’s in steep decline. Many other major commodities—coal, iron ore, and copper among them—have registered comparable declines over the course of the last few months. I have no doubt that the Saudi government has its own reasons for keeping their own oil production at full tilt even though the price is crashing, but they don’t control the price of those other commodities, or the pace of commercial shipping—another thing that has dropped steeply in recent months.

What’s going on, rather, is something that a number of us in the peak oil scene have been warning about for a while now. Since most of the world’s economies run on petroleum products, the steep oil prices of the last few years have taken a hefty bite out of all economic activities.  The consequences of that were papered over for a while by frantic central bank activities, but they’ve finally begun to come home to roost in what’s politely called “demand destruction”—in less opaque terms, the process by which those who can no longer afford goods or services stop buying them.

That, in turn, reminded me of the last time prolonged demand destruction collided with a boom in high-priced oil production, and sent me chasing after a book I read almost three decades ago. A few days ago, accordingly,  the excellent interlibrary loan service we have here in Maryland brought me a hefty 1985 hardback by financial journalist Philip Zweig, with the engaging title Belly Up: The Collapse of the Penn Square Bank. Some of my readers may never have heard of the Penn Square Bank; others may be scratching their heads, trying to figure out why the name sounds vaguely familiar. Those of my readers who belong to either category may want to listen up, because the same story seems to be repeating itself right now on an even larger scale.

The tale begins in the middle years of the 1970s, when oil prices shot up to unprecedented levels, and reserves of oil and natural gas that hadn’t been profitable before suddenly looked like winning bets. The deep strata of Oklahoma’s Anadarko basin were ground zero for what many people thought was a new era in natural gas production, especially when a handful of deep wells started bringing in impressive volumes of gas. The only missing ingredient was cash, and plenty of it, to pay for the drilling and hardware. That’s where the Penn Square Bank came into the picture.

The Penn Square Bank was founded in 1960. At that time, as a consequence of hard-earned suspicions about big banks dating back to the Populist era, Oklahoma state banking laws prohibited banks from owning more than one branch, and so there were hundreds of little one-branch banks scattered across the state, making a modest return from home mortgages, auto loans, and the like. That’s what Penn Square was; it had been organized by the developer of the Penn Square shopping mall, in the northern suburbs of Oklahoma City, to provide an additional draw to retailers and customers. There it sat, in between a tobacconist and Shelley’s Tall Girl’s Shop, doing ordinary retail banking, until 1975.

In that year it was bought by a group of investors headed by B.P. “Beep” Jennings, an Oklahoma City banker who had been passed over for promotion at one of the big banks in town. Jennings pretty clearly wanted to prove that he could run with the big dogs; he was an excellent salesman, but not particularly talented at the number-crunching details that make for long-term success in banking, and he proceeded to demonstrate his strengths and weaknesses in an unforgettable manner. He took the little shopping mall bank and transformed it into a big player in the Oklahoma oil and gas market, which was poised—or so a chorus of industry voices insisted—on the brink of one of history’s great energy booms.

Now of course this involved certain difficulties, which had to be overcome. A small shopping center bank doesn’t necessarily have the financial resources to become a big player in a major oil and gas market, for example. Fortunately for Beep Jennings, one of the grand innovations that has made modern banking what it is today had already occurred; by his time, loans were no longer seen as money that was collected from depositors and loaned out to qualified borrowers, in the expectation that it would be repaid with interest. Rather, loans were (and are) assets, which could (and can) be sold, for cash, to other banks. This is what Penn Square did, and since their loans charged a competitive interest rate and thus promised competitive profits, they were eagerly snapped up by Chase Manhattan, Continental Illinois, Seattle First, and a great many other large and allegedly sophisticated banks. So Penn Square Bank started issuing loans to Oklahoma oil and gas entrepreneurs, a flotilla of other banks around the country proceeded to fund those loans, and to all intents and purposes, the energy boom began.

At least that’s what it looked like. There was a great deal of drilling going on, certainly; the economists insisted that the price of oil and gas would just keep on rising; the local and national media promptly started featuring giddily enthusiastic stories about the stunning upside opportunities in the booming Oklahoma oil and gas business. What’s more, Oklahoma oil and gas entrepreneurs were spending money like nobody’s business, and not just on drilling leases, steel pipe, and the other hardware of the trade. Lear jets, vacation condos in fashionable resorts, and such lower-priced symbols of nouveau richesse as overpriced alligator-hide cowboy boots were much in evidence; so was the kind of high-rolling crassness that only the Sunbelt seems to inspire. Habitués of the Oklahoma oilie scene used to reminisce about one party where one of the attendees stood at the door with a stack of crisp $100 bills in his hand and asked every woman who entered how much she wanted for her clothes: every stitch, then and there, piled up in the entry. Prices varied, but apparently none of them turned down the offer.

It’s only fair to admit that there were a few small clouds marring the otherwise sunny vistas of the late 1970s Oklahoma oil scene. One of them was the difficulty the banks buying loans from Penn Square—the so-called “upstream” banks—had in getting Penn Square to forward all the necessary documents on those loans. Since their banks were making loads of money off the transactions, the people in charge at the upstream banks were unwilling to make a fuss about it, and so their processing staff just had to put up with such minor little paperwork problems as missing or contradictory statements concerning collateral, payments of interest and principal, and so on. 

Mind you, some of the people in charge at those upstream banks seem to have had distinctly personal reasons for not wanting to make a fuss about those minor little paperwork problems. They were getting very large loans from Penn Square on very good terms, entering into partnerships with Penn Square’s favorite oilmen, and in at least some cases attending the clothing-optional parties just mentioned. No one else in the upstream banks seems to have been rude enough to ask too many questions about these activities; those who wondered aloud about them were told, hey, that’s just the way Oklahoma oilmen do business, and after all, the banks were making loads of money off the boom.

All in all, the future looked golden just then. In 1979, the Iranian revolution drove the price of oil up even further; in 1980, Jimmy Carter’s troubled presidency—with its indecisive but significant support for alternative energy and, God help us all, conservation—was steamrollered by Reagan’s massively funded and media-backed candidacy. As the new president took office in January of 1981, promising “morning in America,” the Penn Square bankers, their upstream counterparts, their clients in the Oklahoma oil and gas industry, and everyone else associated with the boom felt confident that happy days were there to stay. After all, the economists insisted that the price of oil and gas would just keep rising for decades to come, the most business-friendly and environment-hostile administration in living memory was comfortably ensconced in the White House; and investors were literally begging to be allowed to get a foot in the door in the Oklahoma boom. What could possibly go wrong?

Then, in 1981, without any fuss at all, the price of oil and natural gas peaked and began to decline.

In retrospect, it’s not difficult to see what happened, though a lot of people since then have put a lot of effort into leaving the lessons of those years unlearnt.  Energy is so central to a modern economy that when the price of energy goes up, every other sector of the economy ends up taking a hit. The rising price of energy functions, in effect, as a hidden tax on all economic activity outside the energy sector, and sends imbalances cascading through every part of the economy. As a result, other economic sectors cut their expenditures on energy as far as they can, either by conservation measures or by such tried and true processes as shedding jobs, cutting production, or going out of business. All this had predictable effects on the price of oil and gas, even though very few people predicted them.

As oil and gas prices slumped, investors started backing away from fossil fuel investments, including the Oklahoma boom. Upstream banks, in turn, started to have second thoughts about the spectacular sums of money they’d poured into Penn Square Bank loans. For the first time since the boom began, hard questions—the sort of questions that, in theory, investors and bankers are supposed to ask as a matter of course when people ask them for money—finally got asked. That’s when the problems began in earnest, because a great many of those questions didn’t have any good answers.

It took until July 5, 1982 for the boom to turn definitively into a bust. That’s the day that  federal bank regulators, after several years of inconclusive fumbling and a month or so of increasing panic, finally shut down the Penn Square Bank. What they discovered, as they dug through the mass of fragmentary, inaccurate, and nonexistent paperwork, was that Penn Square had basically been lending money to anybody in the oil and gas industry who wanted some, without taking the trouble to find out if the borrowers would ever be able to repay it. When payments became a problem, Penn Square obligingly loaned out the money to make their payments, and dealt with loans that went bad by loaning deadbeat borrowers even more money, so they could clear their debts and maintain their lifestyles.

The oil and gas boom had in fact been nothing of the kind, as a good many of the firms that had been out there producing oil and gas had been losing money all along.  Rather, it was a Ponzi scheme facilitated by delusional lending practices.  All those Lear jets, vacation condos, alligator-skin cowboy boots, heaps of slightly used women’s clothing, and the rest of it? They were paid for by money from investors and upstream banks, some of it via the Penn Square Bank, the rest from other banks and investors. The vast majority of the money was long gone; the resulting crash brought half a dozen major banks to their knees, and plunged Oklahoma and the rest of the US oil belt into a savage recession that gripped the region for most of a decade.

That was the story chronicled in Zweig’s book, which I reread  over a few quiet evenings last week. Do any of the details seem familiar to you? If not, dear reader, you need to get out more.

As far as I know, the fracking bubble that’s now well into its denouement didn’t have a single ineptly run bank at its center, as the Oklahoma oil and gas bubble did. Most of the other details of that earlier fiasco, though, were present and accounted for. Sky-high fuel prices, check; reserves unprofitable at earlier prices that suddenly looked like a winning deal, check; a media frenzy that oversold the upside and completely ignored the possibility of a downside, check; vast torrents of money and credit from banks and investors too dazzled by the thought of easy riches to ask the obvious questions, check; a flurry of drilling companies that lost money every single quarter but managed to stay in business by heaping up mountains of unpayable debt, check. Pretty much every square on the bingo card marked “ecoomic debacle” has been filled in with a pen dipped in fracking fluid.

Now of course a debacle of the Penn Square variety requires at least one other thing, which is a banking industry so fixated on this quarter’s profits that it can lose track of the minor little fact that lending money to people who can’t pay it back isn’t a business strategy with a long shelf life. I hope none of my readers are under the illusion that this is lacking just now. With interest rates stuck around zero and people and institutions that live off their investments frantically hunting for what used to count as a normal rate of return, the same culture of short-term thinking and financial idiocy that ran the global economy into the ground in the 2008 real estate crash remains firmly in place, glued there by the refusal of the Obama administration and its equivalents elsewhere to prosecute even the most egregious cases of fraud and malfeasance.

Now that the downturn in oil prices is under way, and panic selling of energy-related junk bonds and lower grades of unconventional crude oil has begun in earnest, it seems likely that we’ll learn just how profitable the fracking fad of the last few years actually was. My working guess, which is admittedly an outsider’s view based on limited data and historical parallels, is that it was a money-losing operation from the beginning, and looked prosperous—as the Oklahoma boom did—only because it attracted a flood of investment money from people and institutions who were swept up in the craze. If I’m right, the spike in domestic US oil production due to fracking was never more than an artifact of fiscal irresponsibility in the first place, and could not have been sustained no matter what. Still, we’ll see.

The more immediate question is just how much damage the turmoil now under way will do to a US and global economy that have never recovered from the body blow inflicted on them by the real estate bubble that burst in 2008. Much depends on exactly who sunk how much money into fracking-related investments, and just how catastrophically those investments come unraveled.  It’s possible that the result could be just a common or garden variety recession; it’s possible that it could be quite a bit more. When the tide goes out, as Warren Buffet has commented, you find out who’s been swimming naked, and just how far the resulting lack of coverage will extend is a question of no small importance.

At least three economic sectors outside the fossil fuel industry, as I see it, stand to suffer even if all we get is an ordinary downturn. The first, of course, is the financial sector. A vast amount of money was loaned to the fracking industry; another vast amount—I don’t propose to guess how it compares to the first one—was accounted for by issuing junk bonds, and there was also plenty of ingenious financial architecture of the sort common in the housing boom. Those are going to lose most or all of their value in the months and years ahead. No doubt the US government will bail out its pals in the really big banks again, but there’s likely to be a great deal of turmoil anyway, and midsized and smaller players may crash and burn in a big way. One way or another, it promises to be entertaining.

The second sector I expect to take a hit is the renewable energy sector.  In the 1980s, as prices of oil and natural gas plunged, they took most of the then-burgeoning solar and wind industries with them. There were major cultural shifts at the same time that helped feed the abandonment of renewable energy, but the sheer impact of cheap oil and natural gas needs to be taken into account. If, as seems likely, we can expect several years of lowerr energy prices, and several years of the kind of economic downdraft that makes access to credit for renewable-energy projects a real challenge, a great many firms in the green sector will struggle for survival, and some won’t make it.

Those renewable-energy firms that pull through will find a substantial demand for their services further down the road, once the recent talk about Saudi America finds its proper home in the museum of popular delusions next to perpetual motion machines and Piltdown Man, and the US has to face a future without the imaginary hundred-year reserve of fracked natural gas politicians were gabbling about not that long ago. Still, it’s going to take some nimble footwork to get there; my guess is that those firms that get ready to do without government subsidies and tax credits, and look for ways to sell low-cost homescale systems in an era of disintegrating energy infrastructure, will do much better than those that cling to the hope of government subsidies and big corporate contracts.

The third sector I expect to land hard this time around is the academic sector. Yes, I know, it’s not fashionable to talk of the nation’s colleges and universities as an economic sector, but let’s please be real; in today’s economy, the academic industry functions mostly as a sales office for predatory loans, which are pushed on unwary consumers using deceptive marketing practices. The vast majority of people who are attending US universities these days, after all, will not prosper as a result; in fact, they will never recover financially from the burden of their student loans, since the modest average increase in income that will come to those graduates who actually manage to find jobs will be dwarfed by the monthly debt service they’ll have to pay for decades after graduation.

One of the core reasons why the academic industry has become so vulnerable to a crash is that most colleges and universities rely on income from their investments to pay their operating expenses, and income from investments has taken a double hit in the last decade. First, the collapse of interest rates to near-zero (and in some cases, below-zero) levels has hammered returns across the spectrum of investment vehicles. As a result, colleges and universities have increasingly put their money into risky investments that promise what used to be ordinary returns, and this drove the second half of the equation; in the wake of the 2008 real estate crash, many colleges and universities suffered massive losses of endowment funds, and most of these losses have never been made good.

Did the nation’s colleges and universities stay clear of the fracking bubble?  That would have required, I think, far more prudence and independent thinking than the academic industry has shown of late. Those institutions that had the common sense to get out of fossil fuels for ecological reasons may end up reaping a surprising benefit; the rest, well, here again we’ll have to wait and see. My working guess, which is once again an outsider’s guess based on limited data and historical parallels, is that a great many institutions tried to bail themselves out from the impact of the real estate bust by doubling down on fracking. If that’s what happened, the looming crisis in American higher education—a crisis driven partly by the predatory loan practices mentioned earlier, partly by the jawdropping inflation in the price of a college education in recent decades, and partly by rampant overbuilding of academic programs—will be hitting shortly, and some very big names in the academic industry may not survive the impact.

As Yogi Berra liked to point out, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. Still, it looks as though we may be in the opening stages of a really ugly fiscal crisis, and I’d encourage my readers to take that possibility seriously and act accordingly.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dark Age America: The Sharp Edge of the Shell

One of the interesting features of blogging about the twilight of science and technology these days is that there’s rarely any need to wait long for a cogent example. One that came my way not long ago via a reader of this blog—tip of the archdruidical hat to Eric S.—shows that not even a science icon can get away with asking questions about the rising tide of financial corruption and dogmatic ideology that’s drowning the scientific enterprise in our time.

Many of my readers will recall Bill Nye the Science Guy, the star of a television program on science in the 1990s and still a vocal and entertaining proponent of science education. In a recent interview, Nye was asked why he doesn’t support the happy-go-lucky attitude toward dumping genetically modified organisms into the environment that’s standard in the United States and a few other countries these days. His answer  is that their impact on ecosystems is a significant issue that hasn’t been adequately addressed. Those who know their way around today’s pseudoskeptic scene won’t be surprised by the reaction from one of Discover Magazine’s bloggers: a tar and feathers party, more or less, full of the standard GMO industry talking points and little else.

Nye’s point, as it happens, is as sensible as it is scientific: ecosystems are complex wholes that can be thrown out of balance by relatively subtle shifts, and since human beings depend for their survival and prosperity on the products of natural ecosystems, avoiding unnecessary disruption to those systems is arguably a good idea. This eminently rational sort of thinking, though, is not welcomed in corporate boardrooms just now.  In the case under discussion, it’s particularly unwelcome in the boardrooms of  corporations heavily invested in genetic modification, which have a straightforward if shortsighted financial interest in flooding the biosphere with as many GMOs as they can sell.

Thus it’s reasonable that Monsanto et al. would scream bloody murder in response to Nye’s comment. What interests me is that so many believers in science should do the same, and not only in this one case. Last I checked, “what makes the biggest profit for industry must be true” isn’t considered a rule of scientific reasoning, but that sort of thinking is remarkably common in what passes for skepticism these days. To cite an additional example, it’s surely not accidental that there’s a 1.00 correlation between the health care modalities that make money for the medical and pharmaceutical industries and the health care modalities that the current crop of soi-disant skeptics consider rational and science-based, and an equal 1.00 correlation between those modalities that don’t make money for the medical and pharmaceutical industries and those that today’s skeptics dismiss as superstitious quackery.

To some extent, this is likely a product of what’s called “astroturfing,” the manufacture of artificial grassroots movements to support the agendas of an industrial sector or a political faction. The internet, with its cult of anonymity and its less than endearing habit of letting every discussion plunge to the lowest common denominator of bullying and abuse, was tailor-made for that sort of activity; it’s pretty much an open secret at this point, or so I’m told by the net-savvy, that most significant industries these days maintain staffs of paid flacks who spend their working hours searching the internet for venues to push messages favorable to their employers and challenge opposing views. Given the widespread lack of enthusiasm for GMOs, Monsanto and its competitors would have to be idiots to neglect such an obvious and commonly used marketing tactic.

Still, there’s more going on here than ordinary media manipulation in the hot pursuit of profits. There are plenty of people who have no financial stake in the GMO industry who defend it fiercely from even the least whisper of criticism, just as there are plenty of people who denounce alternative medicine in ferocious terms even though they don’t happen to make money from the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex. I’ve discussed in previous posts here, and in a forthcoming book, the way that faith in progress was pressed into service as a substitute for religious belief during the nineteenth century, and continues to fill that role for many people today. It’s not a transformation that did science any good, but its implications as industrial civilization tips over into decline and fall are considerably worse than the ones I’ve explored in previous essays. I want to talk about those implications here, because they have a great deal to say about the future of science and technology in the deindustrializing world of the near future.

It’s important, in order to make sense of those implications, to grasp that science and technology function as social phenomena, and fill social roles, in ways that have more than a little in common with the intellectual activities of civilizations of the past. That doesn’t mean, as some postmodern theorists have argued, that science and technology are purely social phenomena; both of them have to take the natural world into account, and so have an important dimension that transcends the social. That said, the social dimension also exists, and since human beings are social mammals, that dimension has an immense impact on the way that science and technology function in this or any other human society.

From a social standpoint, it’s thus not actually all that relevant that that the scientists and engineers of contemporary industrial society can accomplish things with matter and energy that weren’t within the capacities of Babylonian astrologer-priests, Hindu gurus, Chinese literati, or village elders in precontact New Guinea. Each of these groups have been assigned a particular social role, the role of interpreter of Nature, by their respective societies, and each of them are accorded substantial privileges for fulfilling the requirements of their role. It’s therefore possible to draw precise and pointed comparisons between the different bodies of people filling that very common social role in different societies.

The exercise is worth doing, not least because it helps sort out the far from meaningless distinction between the aspects of modern science and technology that unfold from their considerable capacities for doing things with matter and energy, and the aspects of modern science and technology that unfold from the normal dynamics of social privilege.  What’s more, since modern science and technology wasn’t around in previous eras of decline and fall but privileged intellectual castes certainly were, recognizing the common features that unite today’s scientists, engineers, and promoters of scientific and technological progress with equivalent groups in past civilizations makes it a good deal easier to anticipate the fate of science and technology in the decades and centuries to come.

A specific example will be more useful here than any number of generalizations, so let’s consider the fate of philosophy in the waning years of the Roman world. The extraordinary intellectual adventure we call classical philosophy began in the Greek colonial cities of Ionia around 585 BCE, when Thales of Miletus first proposed a logical rather than a mythical explanation for the universe, and proceeded through three broad stages from there. The first stage, that of the so-called Presocratics, focused on the natural world, and the questions it asked and tried to answer can more or less be summed up as “What exists?”  Its failures and equivocal successes led the second stage, which extended from Socrates through Plato and Aristotle to the Old Academy and its rivals, to focus their attention on different questions, which can be summed up just as neatly as “How can we know what exists?”

That was an immensely fruitful shift in focus. It led to the creation of classical logic—one of the great achievements of the human mind—and it also drove the transformations that turned mathematics from an assortment of rules of thumb to an architecture of logical proofs, and thus laid the foundations on which Newtonian physics and other quantitative sciences eventually built.  Like every other great intellectual adventure of our species, though, it never managed to fulfill all the hopes that had been loaded onto it; the philosopher’s dream of human society made wholly subject to reason turned out to be just as unreachable as the scientist’s of the universe made wholly subject to the human will. As that failure became impossible to ignore, classical philosophy shifted focus again, to a series of questions and attempted answers that amounted to “given what we know about what exists, how should we live?”

That’s the question that drove the last great age of classical philosophy, the age of the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Neoplatonists, the three philosophical schools I discussed a few months back as constructive personal responses to the fall of our civilization. At first, these and other schools carried on lively and far-reaching debates, but as the Roman world stumbled toward its end under the burden of its own unsolved problems, the philosophers closed ranks; debates continued, but they focused more and more tightly on narrow technical issues within individual schools. What’s more, the schools themselves closed ranks; pure Stoic, Aristotelian, and Epicurean philosophy gradually dropped out of fashion, and by the fourth century CE, a Neoplatonism enriched with bits and pieces of all the other schools stood effectively alone, the last school standing in the long struggle Thales kicked off ten centuries before.

Now I have to confess to a strong personal partiality for the Neoplatonists. It was from Plotinus and Proclus, respectively the first and last great figures in the classical tradition, that I first grasped why philosophy matters and what it can accomplish, and for all its problems—like every philosophical account of the world, it has some—Neoplatonism still makes intuitive sense to me in a way that few other philosophies do. What’s more, the men and women who defended classical Neoplatonism in its final years were people of great intellectual and personal dignity, committed to proclaming the truth as they knew it in the face of intolerance and persecution that ended up costing no few of them their lives.

The awkward fact remains that classical philosophy, like modern science, functioned as a social phenomenon and filled certain social roles. The intellectual power of the final Neoplatonist synthesis and the personal virtues of its last proponents have to be balanced against its blind support of a deeply troubled social order; in all the long history of classical philosophy, it never seems to have occurred to anyone that debates about the nature of justice might reasonably address, say, the ethics of slavery. While a stonecutter like Socrates could take an active role in philosophical debate in Athens in the fourth century BCE, furthermore, the institutionalization of philosophy meant that by the last years of classical Neoplatonism, its practice was restricted to those with ample income and leisure, and its values inevitably became more and more closely tied to the social class of its practitioners.

That’s the thing that drove the ferocious rejection of philosophy by the underclass of the age, the slaves and urban poor who made up the vast majority of the population throughout the Roman empire, and who received little if any benefit from the intellectual achievements of their society. To them, the subtleties of Neoplatonist thought were irrelevant to the increasingly difficult realities of life on the lower end of the social pyramid in a brutally hierarchical and increasingly dysfunctional world. That’s an important reason why so many of them turned for solace to a new religious movement from the eastern fringes of the empire, a despised sect that claimed that God had been born on earth as a mere carpenter’s son and communicated through his life and death a way of salvation that privileged the poor and downtrodden above the rich and well-educated.

It was as a social phenomenon, filling certain social roles, that Christianity attracted persecution from the imperial government, and it was in response to Christianity’s significance as a social phenomenon that the imperial government executed an about-face under Constantine and took the new religion under its protection. Like plenty of autocrats before and since, Constantine clearly grasped that the real threat to his position and power came from other members of his own class—in his case, the patrician elite of the Roman world—and saw that he could undercut those threats and counter potential rivals through an alliance of convenience with the leaders of the underclass. That’s the political subtext of the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity throughout the empire and brought it imperial patronage.

The patrician class of late Roman times, like its equivalent today, exercised power through a system of interlocking institutions from which outsiders were carefully excluded, and it maintained a prickly independence from the central government.  By the fourth century, tensions between the bureaucratic imperial state and the patrician class, with its local power bases and local loyalties, were rising toward a flashpoint.  The rise of Christianity thus gave Constantine and his successors an extraordinary opportunity.  Most of the institutions that undergirded patrician power linked to Pagan religion; local senates, temple priesthoods, philosophical schools, and other elements of elite culture normally involved duties drawn from the traditional faith. A religious pretext to strike at those institutions must have seemed as good as any other, and the Christian underclass offered one other useful feature: mobs capable of horrific acts of violence against prominent defenders of the patrician order.

That was why, for example, a Christian mob in 415 CE dragged the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia from her chariot as she rode home from her teaching gig at the Academy in Alexandria, cudgeled her to death, cut the flesh from her bones with sharpened oyster shells—the cheap pocket knives of the day—and burned the bloody gobbets to ashes. What doomed Hypatia was not only her defense of the old philosophical traditions, but also her connection to Alexandria’s patrician class; her ghastly fate was as much the vengeance of the underclass against the elite as it was an act of religious persecution. She was far from the only victim of violence driven by those paired motives, either. It was as a result of such pressures that, by the time the emperor Justinian ordered the last academies closed in 529 CE, the classical philosophical tradition was essentially dead.

That’s the sort of thing that happens when an intellectual tradition becomes too closely affiliated with the institutions, ideologies, and interests of a social elite. If the elite falls, so does the tradition—and if it becomes advantageous for anyone else to target the elite, the tradition can be a convenient target, especially if it’s succeeded in alienating most of the population outside the elite in question.

Modern science is extremely vulnerable to such a turn of events. There was a time when the benefits of scientific research and technological development routinely reached the poor as well as the privileged, but that time has long since passed; these days, the benefits of research and development move up the social ladder, while the costs and negative consequences move down. Nearly all the jobs eliminated by automation, globalization, and the computer revolution, for example, used to hire from the bottom end of the job market. In the same way, changes in US health care in recent decades have benefited the privileged while subjecting most others to substandard care at prices so high that medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US today.

It’s all very well for the promoters of progress to gabble on about science as the key to humanity’s destiny; the poor know that the destiny thus marketed isn’t for them.  To the poor, progress means fewer jobs with lower pay and worse conditions, more surveillance and impersonal violence carried out by governments that show less and less interest in paying even lip service to the concept of civil rights, a rising tide of illnesses caused by environmental degradation and industrial effluents, and glimpses from afar of an endless stream of lavishly advertised tech-derived trinkets, perks and privileges that they will never have. Between the poor and any appreciation for modern science stands a wall made of failed schools, defunded libraries, denied opportunities, and the systematic use of science and technology to benefit other people at their expense. Such a wall, it probably bears noting, makes a good surface against which to sharpen oyster shells.

It seems improbable that anything significant will be done to change this picture until it’s far too late for such changes to have any meaningful effect. Barring dramatic transformations in the distribution of wealth, the conduct of public education, the funding for such basic social amenities as public libraries, and a great deal more, the underclass of the modern industrial world can be expected to grow more and more disenchanted with science as a social phenomenon in our culture, and to turn instead—as their equivalents in the Roman world and so many other civilizations did—to some tradition from the fringes that places itself in stark opposition to everything modern scientific culture stands for. Once that process gets under way, it’s simply a matter of waiting until the corporate elite that funds science, defines its values, and manipulates it for PR purposes, becomes sufficiently vulnerable that some other power center decides to take it out, using institutional science as a convenient point of attack.

Saving anything from the resulting wreck will be a tall order. Still, the same historical parallel discussed above offers some degree of hope. The narrowing focus of classical philosophy in its last years meant, among other things, that a substantial body of knowledge that had once been part of the philosophical movement was no longer identified with it by the time the cudgels and shells came out, and much of it was promptly adopted by Christian clerics and monastics as useful for the Church. That’s how classical astronomy, music theory, and agronomy, among other things, found their way into the educational repertoire of Christian monasteries and nunneries in the dark ages. What’s more, once the power of the patrician class was broken, a carefully sanitized version of Neoplatonist philosophy found its way into Christianity; in some denominations, it’s still a living presence today.

That may well happen again. Certainly today’s defenders of science are doing their best to shove a range of scientific viewpoints out the door; the denunciation meted out to Bill Nye for bringing basic concepts from ecology into a discussion where they were highly relevant is par for the course these days. There’s an interesting distinction between the sciences that get this treatment and those that don’t: on the one hand, those that are being flung aside are those that focus on observation of natural systems rather than control of artificial ones; on the other, any science that raises doubts about the possibility or desirability of infinite technological expansion can expect to find itself shivering in the dark outside in very short order. (This latter point applies to other fields of intellectual endeavor as well; half the angry denunciations of philosophy you’ll hear these days from figures such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I’m convinced, come out of the simple fact that the claims of modern science to know objective truths about nature won’t stand up to fifteen minutes of competent philosophical analysis.)

Thus it’s entirely possible that observational sciences, if they can squeeze through the bottleneck imposed by the loss of funding and prestige, will be able to find a new home in whatever intellectual tradition replaces modern scientific rationalism in the deindustrial future. It’s at least as likely that such dissident sciences as ecology, which has always raised challenging questions about the fantasies of the manipulative sciences, may find themselves eagerly embraced by a future intellectual culture that has no trouble at all recognizing the futility of those fantasies. That said, it’s still going to take some hard work to preserve what’s been learnt in those fields—and it’s also going to take more than the usual amount of prudence and plain dumb luck not to get caught up in the conflict when the sharp edge of the shell gets turned on modern science.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Dark Age America: The Fragmentation of Technology

It was probably inevitable that last week’s discussion of the way that contemporary science is offering itself up as a sacrifice on the altar of corporate greed and institutional arrogance would field me a flurry of responses that insisted that I must hate science.  This is all the more ironic in that the shoddy logic involved in that claim also undergirded George W. Bush’s famous and fatuous insistence that the Muslim world is riled at the United States because “they hate our freedom.”

In point of fact, the animosity felt by many Muslims toward the United States is based on specific grievances concerning specific acts of US foreign policy. Whether or not those grievances are justified is a matter I don’t propose to get into here; the point that’s relevant to the current discussion is that the grievances exist, they relate to identifiable actions on the part of the US government, and insisting that the animosity in question is aimed at an abstraction instead is simply one of the ways that Bush, or for that matter his equally feckless successor, have tried to sidestep any discussion of the means, ends, and cascading failures of US policy toward the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.

In the same way, it’s very convenient to insist that people who ask hard questions about the way that contemporary science has whored itself out to economic and political interests, or who have noticed gaps between the claims about reality made by the voices of the scientific mainstream and their own lived experience of the world, just hate science. That evasive strategy makes it easy to brush aside questions about the more problematic dimensions of science as currently practiced. This isn’t a strategy with a long shelf life; responding to a rising spiral of problems by insisting that the problems don’t exist and denouncing those who demur is one of history’s all-time bad choices, but intellectuals in falling civilizations all too often try to shore up the crumbling foundations of their social prestige and privilege via that foredoomed approach.

Central to the entire strategy is a bit of obfuscation that treats “science” as a monolithic unity, rather than the complex and rather ramshackle grab-bag of fields of study, methods of inquiry, and theories about how different departments of nature appear to work. There’s no particular correlation between, let’s say, the claims made for the latest heavily marketed and dubiously researched pharmaceutical, on the one hand, and the facts of astronomy, evolutionary biology, or agronomy on the other; and someone can quite readily find it impossible to place blind faith in the pharmaceutical and the doctor who’s pushing it on her, while enjoying long nights observing the heavens through a telescope, delighting in the elegant prose and even more elegant logic of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, or running controlled experiments in her backyard on the effectiveness of compost as a soil amendment. To say that such a person “hates science” is to descend from meaningful discourse to thoughtstopping noise.

The habit of insisting that science is a single package, take it or leave it, is paralleled by the equivalent and equally specious insistence that there is this single thing called “technology,” that objecting to any single component of that alleged unity amounts to rejecting all of it, and that you’re not allowed to pick and choose among technologies—you have to take all of it or reject it all. I field this sort of nonsense all the time. It so happens, for example, that I have no interest in owning a cell phone, never got around to playing video games, and have a sufficiently intense fondness for books printed on actual paper that I’ve never given more than a passing thought to the current fad for e-books.

I rarely mention these facts to those who don’t already know them, because it’s a foregone conclusion that if I do so, someone will ask me whether I hate technology.  Au contraire, I’m fond of slide rules, love rail travel, cherish an as yet unfulfilled ambition to get deep into letterpress printing, and have an Extra class amateur radio license; all these things entail enthusiastic involvement with specific technologies, and indeed affection for them; but if I mention these points in response to the claim that I must hate technology, the responses I get range from baffled incomprehension to angry dismissal.

“Technology,” in the mind of those who make such claims, clearly doesn’t mean what the dictionary says it means.  To some extent, of course, it amounts to whatever an assortment of corporate and political marketing firms want you to buy this week, but there’s more to it than that. Like the word “science,” “technology” has become a buzzword freighted with a vast cargo of emotional, cultural, and (whisper this) political meanings.  It’s so densely entangled with passionately felt emotions, vast and vague abstractions, and frankly mythic imagery that many of those who use the word can’t explain what they mean by it, and get angry if you ask them to try.

The flattening out of the vast diversity of technologies, in the plural, into a single monolithic shape guarded by unreasoning emotions would be problematic under any conditions. When a civilization that depends on the breakneck exploitation of nonrenewable resources is running up against the unyielding limits of a finite planet, with resource depletion and pollution in a neck-and-neck race to see which one gets to bring the industrial project to an end first, it’s a recipe for disaster. A sane response to the predicament of our time would have to start by identifying the technological suites that will still be viable in a resource-constrained and pollution-damaged environment, and then shift as much vital infrastructure to those as possible with the sharply limited resources we have left. Our collective thinking about technology is so muddled by unexamined emotions, though, that it doesn’t matter now obviously necessary such a project might be: it remains unthinkable.

Willy-nilly, though, the imaginary monolith of “technology” is going to crumble, because different technologies have wildly varying resource requirements, and they vary just as drastically in terms of their importance to the existing order of society. As resource depletion and economic contraction tighten their grip on the industrial world, the stock of existing and proposed technologies face triage in a continuum defined by two axes—the utility of the technology, on the one hand, and its cost in real (i.e., nonfinancial) terms on the other. A chart may help show how this works.


 This is a very simplified representation of the frame in which decisions about technology are made. Every kind of utility from the demands of bare survival to the whims of fashion is lumped in together and measured on the vertical axis, and every kind of nonfinancial cost from energy and materials straight through to such intangibles as opportunity cost is lumped in together and measured on the horizontal axis. In an actual analysis, of course, these variables would be broken out and considered separately; the point of a more schematic view of the frame, like this one, is that it allows the basic concepts to be grasped more easily.

The vertical and horizontal lines that intersect in the middle of the graph are similarly abstractions from a complex reality. The horizontal line represents the boundary between those technologies which have enough utility to be worth building and maintaining, which are above the line, and those which have too little utility to be worth the trouble, which are below it. The vertical line represents the boundary between those technologies which are affordable and those that are not. In the real world, those aren’t sharp boundaries but zones of transition, with complex feedback loops weaving back and forth among them, but again, this is a broad conceptual model.

The intersection of the lines divides the whole range of technology into four categories, which I’ve somewhat unoriginally marked with the first four letters of the alphabet. Category A consists of things that are both affordable and useful, such as indoor plumbing. Category B consists of things that are affordable but useless, such as electrically heated underwear for chickens. Category C consists of things that are useful but unaffordable, such as worldwide 30-minute pizza delivery from low earth orbit. Category D, rounding out the set, consists of things that are neither useful nor affordable, such as—well, I’ll let my readers come up with their own nominees here.

Now of course the horizontal and vertical lines aren’t fixed; they change position from one society to another, from one historical period to another, and indeed from one community, family, or individual to another. (To me, for example, cell phones belong in category B, right next to the electrically heated chicken underwear; other people would doubtless put them in somewhere else on the chart.) Every society, though, has a broad general consensus about what goes in which category, which is heavily influenced by but by no means entirely controlled by the society’s political class.  That consensus is what guides its collective decisions about funding or defunding technologies.


With the coming of the industrial revolution, both of the lines shifted substantially from their previous position, as shown in the second chart. Obviously, the torrent of cheap abundant energy gave the world’s industrial nations access to an unparalleled wealth of resources, and this pushed the dividing line between what was affordable and what was unaffordable quite a ways over toward the right hand side of the chart. A great many things that had been desirable but unaffordable to previous civilizations swung over from category C into category A as fossil fuels came on line. This has been discussed at great length here and elsewhere in the peak oil blogosphere.

Less obviously, the dividing line between what was useful and what was useless also shifted quite a bit toward the bottom of the chart, moving a great many things from category B into category A. To follow this, it’s necessary to grasp the concept of technological suites. A technological suite is a set of interdependent technologies that work together to achieve a common purpose. Think of the relationship between cars and petroleum drilling, computer chips and the clean-room filtration systems required for their manufacture, or commercial airliners and ground control radar. What connects each pair of technologies is that they belong to the same technological suite. If you want to have the suite, you must either have all the elements of the suite in place, or be ready to replace any absent element with something else that can serve the same purpose.

For the purpose of our present analysis, we can sort out the component technologies of a technological suite into three very rough categories. There are interface technologies, which are the things with which the end user interacts—in the three examples just listed, those would be private cars, personal computers, and commercial flights to wherever you happen to be going. There are support technologies, which are needed to produce, maintain, and operate the output technologies; they make up far and away the majority of technologies in a technological suite—consider the extraordinary range of  technologies it takes to manufacture a car from raw materials, maintain it, fuel it, provide it with roads on which to drive, and so on. Some interface technologies and most support technologies can be replaced with other technologies as needed, but some of both categories can’t; we can put those that can’t be replaced bottleneck technologies, for reasons that will become clear shortly.

What makes this relevant to the charts we’ve been examining is that most support technologies have no value aside from the technological suites to which they belong and the interface technologies they serve. Without commercial air travel, for example, most of the specialized technologies found at airports are unnecessary. Thus a great many things that once belonged in category B—say, automated baggage carousels—shifted into category A with the emergence of the technological suite that gave them utility. Thus category A balloons with the coming of industrialization, and it kept getting bigger as long as energy and resource use per capita in the industrial nations kept on increasing.

Once energy and resource use per capita peak and begin their decline, though, a different reality comes into play, leading over time to the situation shown in the third chart.


 As cheap abundant energy runs short, and it and all its products become expensive, scarce, or both, the vertical line slides inexorably toward the left. That’s obvious enough. Less obviously, the horizontal line also slides upwards. The reason, here again, is the interrelationship of individual technologies into technological suites. If commercial air travel stops being economically viable, the support technologies that belong to that suite are no longer needed. Even if they’re affordable enough to stay on the left hand side of the vertical line, the technologies needed to run automated baggage carousels thus no longer have enough utility to keep them above the horizontal line, and down they drop into category B.

That’s one way that a technology can drop out of use. It’s just as possible, of course, for something that would still have ample utility to cost too much in terms of real wealth to be an option in a contracting society, and slide across the border into category C. Finally, it’s possible for something to do both at once—to become useless and unaffordable at something like the same time, as economic contraction takes away the ability to pay for the technology and the ability to make use of it at the same time.

It’s also possible for a technology that remains affordable, and participates in a technological suite that’s still capable of meeting genuine needs, to tumble out of category A into one of the others. This can happen because the cost of different technologies differ qualitatively, and not just quantitatively. If you need small amounts of niobium for the manufacture of blivets, and the handful of niobium mines around the world stop production—whether this happens because the ore has run out, or for some other reason, environmental, political, economic, cultural, or what have you—you aren’t going to be able to make blivets any more. That’s one kind of difficulty if it’s possible to replace blivets with something else, or substitute some other rare element for the niobium; it’s quite another, and much more challenging, if blivets made with niobium are the only thing that will work for certain purposes, or the only thing that makes those purposes economically viable.

It’s habitual in modern economics to insist that such bottlenecks don’t exist, because there’s always a viable alternative. That sort of thinking made a certain degree of sense back when energy per capita was still rising, because the standard way to get around material shortages for a century now has been to throw more energy, more technology, and more complexity into the mix. That’s how low-grade taconite ores with scarcely a trace of iron in them have become the mainstay of today’s iron and steel industry; all you have to do is add fantastic amounts of cheap energy, soaring technological complexity, and an assortment of supply and resource chains reaching around the world and then some, and diminishing ore quality is no problem at all.

It’s when you don’t have access to as much cheap energy, technological complexity, and baroque supply chains as you want that this sort of logic becomes impossible to sustain. Once this point is reached, bottlenecks become an inescapable feature of life. The bottlenecks, as already suggested, don’t have to be technological in nature—a bottleneck technology essential to a given technological suite can be perfectly feasible, and still out of reach for other reasons—but whatever generates them, they throw a wild card into the process of technological decline that shapes the last years of a civilization on its way out, and the first few centuries of the dark age that follows.

The crucial point to keep in mind here is that one bottleneck technology, if it becomes inaccessible for any reason, can render an entire technological suite useless, and compromise other technological suites that depend on the one directly affected. Consider the twilight of ceramics in the late Roman empire. Rome’s ceramic industry operated on as close to an industrial scale as you can get without torrents of cheap abundant energy; regional factories in various places, where high-quality clay existed, produced ceramic goods in vast amounts and distributed them over Roman roads and sea lanes to the far corners of the empire and beyond it. The technological suite that supported Roman dishes and roof tiles thus included transport technologies, and those turned out to be the bottleneck: as long-distance transport went away, the huge ceramic factories could no longer market their products and shut down, taking with them every element of their technological suite that couldn’t be repurposed in a hurry.

The same process affected many other technologies that played a significant role in the Roman world, and for that matter in the decline and fall of every other civilization in history. The end result can best be described as technological fragmentation: what had been a more or less integrated whole system of technology, composed of many technological suites working together more or less smoothly, becomes a jumble of disconnected technological suites, nearly all of them drastically simplified compared to their pre-decline state, and many of them jerry-rigged to make use of still-viable fragments of technological suites whose other parts didn’t survive their encounter with one bottleneck or another.  In places where circumstances permit, relatively advanced technological suites can remain in working order long after the civilization that created them has perished—consider the medieval cities that got their water from carefully maintained Roman aqueducts a millennium after Rome’s fall—while other systems operate at far simpler levels, and other regions and communities get by with much simpler technological suites.

All this has immediate practical importance for those who happen to live in a civilization that’s skidding down the curve of its decline and fall—ours, for example. In such a time, as noted above, one critical task is to identify the technological suites that will still be viable in the aftermath of the decline, and shift as much vital infrastructure as possible over to depend on those suites rather than on those that won’t survive the decline. In terms of the charts above, that involves identifying those technological suites that will still be in category A when the lines stop shifting up and to the left, figuring out how to work around any bottleneck technologies that might otherwise cripple them, and get the necessary knowledge into circulation among those who might be able to use it, so that access to information doesn’t become a bottleneck of its own

That sort of analysis, triage, and salvage is among the most necessary tasks of our time, especially for those who want to see viable technologies survive the end of our civilization, and it’s being actively hindered by the insistence that the only possible positive attitude toward technology is sheer blind faith. For connoisseurs of irony, it’s hard to think of a more intriguing spectacle. The impacts of that irony on the future, though, are complex, and will be the subject of several upcoming posts here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dark Age America: The Suicide of Science

Last week’s discussion of facts and values was not as much of a diversion from the main theme of the current sequence of posts here on The Archdruid Report as it may have seemed.  Every human society likes to think that its core cultural and intellectual projects, whatever those happen to be, are the be-all and end-all of human existence. As each society rounds out its trajectory through time with the normal process of decline and fall, in turn, its intellectuals face the dismaying experience of watching those projects fail, and betray the hopes so fondly confided to them.

It’s important not to underestimate the shattering force of this experience. The plays of Euripides offer cogent testimony of the despair felt by ancient Greek thinkers as their grand project of reducing the world to rational order dissolved in a chaos of competing ideologies and brutal warfare. Fast forward most of a millennium, and Augustine’s The City of God anatomized the comparable despair of Roman intellectuals at the failure of their dream of a civilized world at peace under the rule of law. 

Skip another millennium and a bit, and the collapse of the imagined unity of Christendom into a welter of contending sects and warring nationalities had a similar impact on cultural productions of all kinds as the Middle Ages gave way to the era of the Reformation. No doubt when people a millennium or so from now assess the legacies of the twenty-first century, they’ll have no trouble tracing a similar tone of despair in our arts and literature, driven by the failure of science and technology to live up to the messianic fantasies of perpetual progress that have been loaded onto them since Francis Bacon’s time.

I’ve already discussed, in previous essays here, some of the reasons why such projects so reliably fail. To begin with, of course, the grand designs of intellectuals in a mature society normally presuppose access to the kind and scale of resources that such a society supplies to its more privileged inmates.  When the resource needs of an intellectual project can no longer be met, it doesn’t matter how useful it would be if it could be pursued further, much less how closely aligned it might happen to be to somebody’s notion of the meaning and purpose of human existence.

Furthermore, as a society begins its one-way trip down the steep and slippery chute labeled “Decline and Fall,” and its ability to find and distribute resources starts to falter, its priorities necessarily shift. Triage becomes the order of the day, and projects that might ordinarily get funding end up  out of luck so that more immediate needs can get as much of the available resource base as possible. A society’s core intellectual projects tend to face this fate a good deal sooner than other, more pragmatic concerns; when the barbarians are at the gates, one might say, funds that might otherwise be used to pay for schools of philosophy tend to get spent hiring soldiers instead.

Modern science, the core intellectual project of the contemporary industrial world, and technological complexification, its core cultural project, are as subject to these same two vulnerabilities as were the corresponding projects of other civilizations. Yes, I’m aware that this is a controversial claim, but I’d argue that it follows necessarily from the nature of both projects. Scientific research, like most things in life, is subject to the law of diminishing returns; what this means in practice is that the more research has been done in any field, the greater an investment is needed on average to make the next round of discoveries. Consider the difference between the absurdly cheap hardware that was used in the late 19th century to detect the electron and the fantastically expensive facility that had to be built to detect the Higgs boson; that’s the sort of shift in the cost-benefit ratio of research that I have in mind.

A civilization with ample resources and a thriving economy can afford to ignore the rising cost of research, and gamble that new discoveries will be valuable enough to cover the costs. A civilization facing resource shortages and economic contraction can’t. If the cost of new discoveries in particle physics continues to rise along the same curve that gave us the Higgs boson’s multibillion-Euro price tag, for example, the next round of experiments, or the one after that, could easily rise to the point that in an era of resource depletion, economic turmoil, and environmental payback, no consortium of nations on the planet will be able to spare the resources for the project. Even if the resources could theoretically be spared, furthermore, there will be many other projects begging for them, and it’s far from certain that another round of research into particle physics would be the best available option.

The project of technological complexification is even more vulnerable to the same effect. Though true believers in progress like to think of new technologies as replacements for older ones, it’s actually more common for new technologies to be layered over existing ones. Consider, as one example out of many, the US transportation grid, in which airlanes, freeways, railroads, local roads, and navigable waterways are all still in use, reflecting most of the history of transport on this continent from colonial times to the present. The more recent the transport mode, by and large, the more expensive it is to maintain and operate, and the exotic new transportation schemes floated in recent years are no exception to that rule.

Now factor in economic contraction and resource shortages. The most complex and expensive parts of the technostructure tend also to be the most prestigious and politically influential, and so the logical strategy of a phased withdrawal from unaffordable complexity—for example, shutting down airports and using the proceeds to make good some of the impact of decades of malign neglect on the nation’s rail network—is rarely if ever a politically viable option. As contraction accelerates, the available resources come to be distributed by way of a political free-for-all in which rational strategies for the future play no significant role. In such a setting, will new technological projects be able to get the kind of ample funding they’ve gotten in the past? Let’s be charitable and simply say that this isn’t likely.

Thus the end of the age of fossil-fueled extravagance means the coming of a period in which science and technology will have a very hard row to hoe, with each existing or proposed project having to compete for a slice of a shrinking pie of resources against many other equally urgent needs. That in itself would be a huge challenge. What makes it much worse is that many scientists, technologists, and their supporters in the lay community are currently behaving in ways that all but guarantee that when the resources are divided up, science and technology will draw the short sticks.

It has to be remembered that science and technology are social enterprises. They don’t happen by themselves in some sort of abstract space insulated from the grubby realities of human collective life. Laboratories, institutes, and university departments are social constructs, funded and supported by the wider society. That funding and support doesn’t happen by accident; it exists because the wider society believes that the labors of scientists and engineers will further its own collective goals and projects.

Historically speaking, it’s only in exceptional circumstances that something like scientific research gets as large a cut of a society’s total budget as they do today.  As recently as a century ago, the sciences received only a tiny fraction of the support they currently get; a modest number of university positions with limited resources provided most of what institutional backing the sciences got, and technological progress was largely a matter of individual inventors pursuing projects on their own nickel in their off hours—consider the Wright brothers, who carried out the research that led to the first successful airplane in between waiting on customers in their bicycle shop, and without benefit of research grants.

The transformation of scientific research and technological progress from the part-time activity of an enthusiastic fringe culture to its present role as a massively funded institutional process took place over the course of the twentieth century. Plenty of things drove that transformation, but among the critical factors were the successful efforts of scientists, engineers, and the patrons and publicists of science and technology to make a case for science and technology as forces for good in society, producing benefits that would someday be extended to all. In the boomtimes that followed the Second World War, it was arguably easier to make that case than it had ever been before, but it took a great deal of work—not merely propaganda, but actual changes in the way that scientists and engineers interacted with the public and met their concerns—to overcome the public wariness toward science and technology that made the mad scientist such a stock figure in the popular media of the time.

These days, the economic largesse that made it possible for the latest products of industry to reach most American households is increasingly a fading memory, and that’s made life a good deal more difficult for those who argue for science and technology as forces for good. Still, there’s another factor, which is the increasing failure of institutional science and technology to make that case in any way that matters.

Here’s a homely example. I have a friend who suffered from severe asthma. She was on four different asthma medications, each accompanied by its own bevy of nasty side effects, which more or less kept the asthma under control without curing it. After many years of this, she happened to learn that another health problem she had was associated with a dietary allergy, cut the offending food out of her diet, and was startled and delighted to find that her asthma cleared up as well.

After a year with no asthma symptoms, she went to her physician, who expressed surprise that she hadn’t had to come in for asthma treatment in the meantime. She explained what had happened. The doctor admitted that the role of that allergy as a cause of severe asthma was well known. When she asked the doctor why she hadn’t been told this, so she could make an informed decision, the only response she got was, and I quote, “We prefer to medicate for that condition.”

Most of the people I know have at least one such story to tell about their interactions with the medical industry, in which the convenience and profit of the industry took precedence over the well-being of the patient; no few have simply stopped going to physicians, since the side effects from the medications they received have been reliably worse than the illness they had when they went in. Since today’s mainstream medical industry makes so much of its scientific basis, the growing public unease with medicine splashes over onto science in general. For that matter, whenever some technology seems to be harming people, it’s a safe bet that somebody in a lab coat with a prestigious title will appear on the media insisting that everything’s all right; some of the time, the person in the lab coat is right, but it’s happened often enough that everything was not all right that the trust once reposed in scientific experts is getting noticeably threadbare these days.

Public trust in scientists has taken a beating for several other reasons as well. I’ve discussed in previous posts here the way that the vagaries of scientific opinion concerning climate change have been erased from our collective memory by one side in the current climate debate.  It’s probably necessary for me to reiterate here that I find the arguments for disastrous anthropogenic climate change far stronger than the arguments against it, and have discussed the likely consequences of our civilization’s maltreatment of the atmosphere repeatedly on this blog and in my books; the fact remains that in my teen years, in the 1970s and 1980s, scientific opinion was still sharply divided on the subject of future climates, and a significant number of experts believed that the descent into a new ice age was likely.

I’ve taken the time to find and post here the covers of some of the books I read in those days. The authors were by no means nonentities. Nigel Calder was a highly respected science writer and media personality. E.C. Pielou is still one of the most respected Canadian ecologists, and the book of hers shown here, After the Ice Age, is a brilliant ecological study that deserves close attention from anyone interested in how ecosystems respond to sudden climatic warming. Windsor Chorlton, the author of Ice Ages, occupied a less exalted station in the food chain of science writers, but all the volumes in the Planet Earth series were written in consultation with acknowledged experts and summarized the state of the art in the earth sciences at the time of publication.

Since certain science fiction writers have been among the most vitriolic figures denouncing those who remember the warnings of an imminent ice age, I’ve also posted covers of two of my favorite science fiction novels from those days, which were both set in an ice age future. My younger readers may not remember Robert Silverbergand Poul Anderson; those who do will know that both of them were serious SF writers who paid close attention to the scientific thought of their time, and wrote about futures defined by an ice age at the time when this was still a legitimate scientific extrapolation

These books exist.  I still own copies of most of them, and any of my readers who takes the time to find one will discover, in each nonfiction volume, a thoughtfully developed argument suggesting that the earth would soon descend into a new ice age, and in each of the novels, a lively story set in a future shaped by the new ice age in question. Those arguments turned out to be wrong, no question; they were made by qualified experts, at a time
when the evidence concerning climate change was a good deal more equivocal than it’s become since that time, and the more complete evidence that was gathered later settled the matter; but the arguments and the books existed, many people alive today know that they existed, and when scientists associated with climate activism insist that they didn’t, the result is a body blow to public trust in science.

It’s far from the only example of the same kind. Many of my readers will remember the days when all cholesterol was bad and polyunsaturated fats were good for you. Most of my readers will recall drugs that were introduced to the market with loud assurances of safety and efficacy, and then withdrawn in a hurry when those assurances turned out to be dead wrong. Those readers who are old enough may even remember when continental drift was being denounced as the last word in pseudoscience, a bit of history that a number of science writers these days claim never happened. Support for science depends on trust in scientists, and that’s become increasingly hard to maintain at a time when it’s unpleasantly easy to point to straightforward falsifications of the kind just outlined.

On top of all this, there’s the impact of the atheist movement on public debates concerning science. I hasten to say that I know quite a few atheists, and the great majority of them are decent, compassionate people who have no trouble accepting the fact that their beliefs aren’t shared by everyone around them. Unfortunately, the atheists who have managed to seize the public limelight too rarely merit description in those terms.  Most of my readers will be wearily familiar with the sneering bullies who so often claim to speak for atheism these days; I can promise you that as the head of a small religious organization in a minority faith, I get to hear from them far too often for my taste.

Mind you, there’s a certain wry amusement in the way that the resulting disputes are playing out in contemporary culture. Even diehard atheists have begun to notice that whenever Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, a dozen people decide to give religion a second chance. Still, the dubious behavior of the “angry atheist” crowd affects the subject of this post at least as powerfully as it does the field of popular religion. A great many of today’s atheists claim the support of scientific materialism for their beliefs, and no small number of the most prominent figures in the atheist movement hold down day jobs as scientists or science educators. In the popular mind, as a result, these people, their beliefs, and their behavior are quite generally conflated with science as a whole.

Theimplications of all these factors are best explored by way of a simple thought experiment. Let’s say, dear reader, that you’re an ordinary American citizen. Over the last month, you’ve heard one scientific expert insist that the latest fashionable heart drug is safe and effective, while three of your drinking buddies have told you in detail about the ghastly side effects it gave them. You’ve heard another scientific expert denounce acupuncture as crackpot pseudoscience, while your Uncle Henry, who messed up his back in Iraq, got more relief from three visits to an acupuncturist than he got from six years of conventional treatment. You’ve heard still another scientific expert claim yet again that no qualified scientist ever said back in the 1970s that the world was headed for a new ice age, and you read the same books I did when you were in high school and know that the expert is either misinformed or lying. Finally, you’ve been on the receiving end of yet another diatribe by yet another atheist of the sneering-bully type mentioned earlier, who vilified your personal religious beliefs in terms that would probably count as hate speech in most other contexts, and used an assortment of claims about science to justify his views and excuse his behavior.

Given all this, will you vote for a candidate who says that you have to accept a cut in your standard of living in order to keep research laboratories and university science departments fully funded?

No, I didn’t think so.

In miniature, that’s the crisis faced by science as we move into the endgame of industrial civilization, just as comparable crises challenged Greek philosophy, Roman jurisprudence, and medieval theology in the endgames of their own societies. When a society assigns one of its core intellectual or cultural projects to a community of specialists, those specialists need to think, hard, about the way that  their words and actions will come across to those outside that community. That’s important enough when the society is still in a phase of expansion; when it tips over its historic peak and begins the long road down, it becomes an absolute necessity—but it’s a necessity that, very often, the specialists in question never get around to recognizing until it’s far too late.

Thus it’s unlikely that science as a living tradition will be able to survive in its current institutional framework as the Long Descent picks up speed around us. It’s by no means certain that it will survive at all. The abstract conviction that science is humanity’s best hope for the future, even if it were more broadly held than it is, offers little protection against the consequences of popular revulsion driven by the corruptions, falsifications, and abusive behaviors sketched out above. What Oswald Spengler called the Second Religiosity, the resurgence of religion in the declining years of a culture, could have taken many forms in the historical trajectory of industrial society; at this point I think it’s all too likely to contain a very large dollop of hostility toward science and complex technology. How the scientific method and the core scientific discoveries of the last few centuries might be preserved in the face of that hostility will be discussed in a future post.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Facts, Values, and Dark Beer

Over the last eight and a half years, since I first began writing essays on The Archdruid Report, I’ve fielded a great many questions about what motivates this blog’s project. Some of those questions have been abusive, and some of them have been clueless; some of them have been thoughtful enough to deserve an answer, either in the comments or as a blog post in its own right. Last week brought one of that last category. It came from one of my European readers, Ervino Cus, and it read as follows:

“All considered (the amount of weapons—personal and of MD—around today; the population numbers; the environmental pollution; the level of lawlessness we are about to face; the difficulty to have a secure form of life in the coming years; etc.) plus the ‘low’ technical level of possible development of the future societies (I mean: no more space flight? no more scientific discovery about the ultimate structure of the Universe? no genetic engineering to modify the human genome?) the question I ask to myself is: why bother?

“Seriously: why one should wish to plan for his/her long term survival in the future that await us? Why, when all goes belly up, don't join the first warlord band available and go off with a bang, pillaging and raping till one drops dead?

“If the possibilities for a new stable civilization are very low, and it's very probable that such a civilization, even if created, will NEVER be able to reach even the technical level of today, not to mention to surpass it, why one should want to try to survive some more years in a situation that becomes every day less bright, without ANY possibilities to get better in his/her lifetime, and with, as the best objective, only some low-tech rural/feudal state waaay along the way?

“Dunno you, but for me the idea that this is the last stop for the technological civilization, that things as a syncrothron or a manned space flight are doomed and never to repeat, and that the max at which we, as a species and as individuals, can aspire from now on is to have a good harvest and to ‘enjoy’ the same level of knowledge of the structure of the Universe of our flock of sheeps, doesen't makes for a good enough incentive to want to live more, or to give a darn if anybody other lives on.

“Apologies if my word could seem blunt (and for my far than good English: I'm Italian), but, as Dante said:

“Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.”
 (Inferno - Canto XXVI - vv. 112-120)

“If our future is not this (and unfortunately I too agree with you that at this point the things seems irreversibles) I, for one, don't see any reason to be anymore compelled by any moral imperative... :-(

“PS: Yes, I know, I pose some absolutes: that a high-tech/scientific civilization is the only kind of civilization that enpowers us to gain any form of ‘real’ knowledge of the Universe, that this knowledge is a ‘plus’ and that a life made only of ‘birth-reproduction-death’ is a life of no more ‘meaning’ than the one of an a plant.

“Cheers, Ervino.”

It’s a common enough question, though rarely expressed as clearly or as starkly as this. As it happens, there’s an answer to it, or rather an entire family of answers, but the best way there is to start by considering the presuppositions behind it.  Those aren’t adequately summarized by Ervino’s list of ‘absolutes’—the latter are simply restatements of his basic argument.

What Ervino is suggesting, rather, presupposes that scientific and technological progress are the only reasons for human existence. Lacking those—lacking space travel, cyclotrons, ‘real’ knowledge about the universe, and the rest—our existence is a waste of time and we might as well just lay down and die or, as he suggests, run riot in anarchic excess until death makes the whole thing moot. What’s more, only the promise of a better future gives any justification for moral behavior—consider his comment about not feeling compelled by any moral imperative if no better future is in sight.

Those of my readers who recall the discussion of progress as a surrogate religion in last year’s posts here will find this sort of thinking very familiar, because the values being imputed to space travel, cyclotrons et al. are precisely those that used to be assigned to more blatantly theological concepts such as God and eternal life. Still, I want to pose a more basic question: is this claim—that the meaning and purpose of human existence and the justification of morality can only be found in scientific and technological progress—based on evidence? Are there, for example, double-blinded, controlled studies by qualified experts that confirm this claim?

Of course not. Ervino’s claim is a value judgment, not a statement of fact.  The distinction between facts and values was mentioned in last week’s post, but probably needs to be sketched out here as well; to summarize a complex issue somewhat too simply, facts are the things that depend on the properties of perceived objects rather than perceiving subjects. Imagine, dear reader, that you and I were sitting in the same living room, and I got a bottle of beer out of the fridge and passed it around.  Provided that everyone present had normally functioning senses and no reason to prevaricate, we’d be able to agree on certain facts about the bottle: its size, shape, color, weight, temperature, and so on. Those are facts.

Now let’s suppose I got two glasses, poured half the beer into each glass, handed one to you and took the other for myself. Let’s further suppose that the beer is an imperial stout, and you can’t stand dark beer. I take a sip and say, “Oh, man, that’s good.” You take a sip, make a face, and say, “Ick. That’s awful.” If I were to say, “No, that’s not true—it’s delicious,” I’d be talking nonsense of a very specific kind: the nonsense that pops up reliably whenever someone tries to treat a value as though it’s a fact.

“Delicious” is a value judgment, and like every value judgment, it depends on the properties of perceiving subjects rather than perceived objects. That’s true of all values without exception, including those considerably more important than those involved in assessing the taste of beer. To say “this is good” or “this is bad” is to invite the question “according to whose values?”—which is to say, every value implies a valuer, just as every judgment implies a judge.

Now of course it’s remarkably common these days for people to insist that their values are objective truths, and values that differ from theirs objective falsehoods. That’s a very appealing sort of nonsense, but it’s still nonsense. Consider the claim often made by such people that if values are subjective, that would make all values, no matter how repugnant, equal to one another. Equal in what sense? Why, equal in value—and of course there the entire claim falls to pieces, because “equal in value” invites the question already noted, “according to whose values?” If a given set of values is repugnant to you, then pointing out that someone else thinks differently about those values doesn’t make them less repugnant to you.  All it means is that if you want to talk other people into sharing those values, you have to offer good reasons, and not simply insist at the top of your lungs that you’re right and they’re wrong.

To say that values depend on the properties of perceiving subjects rather than perceived objects does not mean that values are wholly arbitrary, after all. It’s possible to compare different values to one another, and to decide that one set of values is better than another. In point of fact, people do this all the time, just as they compare different claims of fact to one another and decide that one is more accurate than another. The scientific method itself is simply a relatively rigorous way to handle this latter task: if fact X is true, then fact Y would also be true; is it? In the same way, though contemporary industrial culture tends to pay far too little attention to this, there’s an ethical method that works along the same lines: if value X is good, then value Y would also be good; is it?

Again, we do this sort of thing all the time. Consider, for example, why it is that most people nowadays reject the racist claim that some arbitrarily defined assortment of ethnicities—say, “the white race”—is superior to all others, and ought to have rights and privileges that are denied to everyone else. One reason why such claims are rejected is that they conflict with other values, such as fairness and justice, that most people consider to be important; another is that the history of racial intolerance shows that people who hold the values associated with racism are much more likely than others to engage in activities, such as herding their neighbors into concentration camps, which most people find morally repugnant. That’s the ethical method in practice.

With all this in mind, let’s go back to Ervino’s claims. He proposes that in all the extraordinary richness of human life, out of all its potentials for love, learning, reflection, and delight, the only thing that can count as a source of meaning is the accumulation of “‘real’ knowledge of the Universe,” defined more precisely as the specific kind of quantitative knowledge about the behavior of matter and energy that the physical sciences of the world’s industrial societies currently pursue. That’s his value judgment on human life. Of course he has the right to make that judgment; he would be equally within his rights to insist that the point of life is to see how many orgasms he can rack up over the course of his existence; and it’s by no means obvious why one of these ambitions is any more absurd than the other.

Curiosity, after all, is a biological drive, one that human beings share in a high degree with most other primates. Sexual desire is another such drive, rather more widely shared among living things. Grant that the fulfillment of some such drive can be seen as the purpose of life, why not another? For that matter, why not more than one, or some combination of biological drives and the many other incentives that are capable of motivating human beings?

For quite a few centuries now, though, it’s been fashionable for thinkers in the Western world to finesse such issues, and insist that some biological drives are “noble” while others are “base,” “animal,” or what have you. Here again, we have value judgments masquerading as statements of fact, with a hearty dollop of class prejudice mixed in—for “base,” “animal,” etc., you could as well put “peasant,” which is of course the literal opposite of “noble.” That’s the sort of thinking that appears in the bit of Dante that Ervino included in his comment. His English is better than my Italian, and I’m not enough of a poet to translate anything but the raw meaning of Dante’s verse, but this is roughly what the verses say:

“Consider your lineage;
You were not born to live as animals,
But to seek virtue and knowledge.”

It’s a very conventional sentiment. The remarkable thing about this passage, though, is that Dante was not proposing the sentiment as a model for others to follow. Rather, this least conventional of poets put those words in the mouth of Ulysses, who appears in this passage of the Inferno as a damned soul frying in the eighth circle of Hell. Dante has it that after the events of Homer’s poem, Ulysses was so deeply in love with endless voyaging that he put to sea again, and these are the words with which he urged his second crew to sail beyond all known seas—a voyage which took them straight to a miserable death, and sent Ulysses himself tumbling down to eternal damnation.

This intensely equivocal frame story is typical of Dante, who delineated as well as any poet ever has the many ways that greatness turns into hubris, that useful Greek concept best translated as the overweening pride of the doomed. The project of scientific and technological progress is at least as vulnerable to that fate as any of the acts that earned the damned their places in Dante’s poem. That project might fail irrevocably if industrial society comes crashing down and no future society will ever be able to pursue the same narrowly defined objectives that ours has valued. In that case—at least in the parochial sense just sketched out—progress is over. Still, there’s at least one more way the same project would come to a screeching and permanent halt: if it succeeds.

Let’s imagine, for instance, that the fantasies of our scientific cornucopians are right and the march of progress continues on its way, unhindered by resource shortages or destabilized biospheres. Let’s also imagine that right now, some brilliant young physicist in Mumbai is working out the details of the long-awaited Unified Field Theory. It sees print next year; there are furious debates; the next decade goes into experimental tests of the theory, and proves that it’s correct. The relationship of all four basic forces of the cosmos—the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity—is explained clearly once and for all. With that in place, the rest of physical science falls into place step by step over the next century or so, and humanity learns the answers to all the questions that science can pose.

It’s only in the imagination of true believers in the Singularity, please note, that everything becomes possible once that happens. Many of the greatest achievements of science can be summed up in the words “you can’t do that;” the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics closed the door once and for all on perpetual motion, just as the theory of relativity put a full stop to the hope of limitless velocity. (“186,282 miles per second: it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.”) Once the sciences finish their work, the technologists will have to scramble to catch up with them, and so for a while, at least, there will be no shortage of novel toys to amuse those who like such things; but sooner or later, all of what Ervino calls “‘real’ knowledge about the Universe” will have been learnt; at some point after that, every viable technology will have been refined to the highest degree of efficiency that physical law allows.

What then? The project of scientific and technological progress will be over. No one will ever again be able to discover a brand new, previously unimagined truth about the universe, in any but the most trivial sense—“this star’s mass is 1.000000000000000000006978 greater than this other star,” or the like—and variations in technology will be reduced to shifts in what’s fashionable at any given time. If the ongoing quest for replicable quantifiable knowledge about the physical properties of nature is the only thing that makes human life worth living, everyone alive at that point arguably ought to fly their hovercars at top speed into the nearest concrete abutment and end it all.

One way or another, that is, the project of scientific and technological progress is self-terminating. If this suggests to you, dear reader, that treating it as the be-all and end-all of human existence may not be the smartest choice, well, yes, that’s what it suggests to me as well. Does that make it worthless? Of course not. It should hardly be necessary to point out that “the only thing important in life” and “not important at all” aren’t the only two options available in discussions of this kind.

I’d like to suggest, along these lines, that human life sorts itself out most straightforwardly into an assortment of separate spheres, each of which deals with certain aspects of the extraordinary range of possibilities open to each of us. The sciences comprise one of those spheres, with each individual science a subsphere within it; the arts are a separate sphere, similarly subdivided; politics, religion, and sexuality are among the other spheres. None of these spheres contains more than a fraction of the whole rich landscape of human existence. Which of them is the most important? That’s a value judgment, and thus can only be made by an individual, from his or her own irreducibly individual point of view.

We’ve begun to realize—well, at least some of us have—that authority in one of these spheres isn’t transferable. When a religious leader, let’s say, makes pronouncements about science, those have no more authority than they would if they came from any other more or less clueless layperson, and a scientist who makes pronouncements about religion is subject to exactly the same rule. The same distinction applies with equal force between any two spheres, and as often as not between subspheres of a single sphere as well:  plenty of scientists make fools of themselves, for example, when they try to lay down the law about sciences they haven’t studied.

Claiming that one such sphere is the only thing that makes human life worthwhile is an error of the same kind. If Ervino feels that scientific and technological progress is the only thing that makes his own personal life worth living, that’s his call, and presumably he has reasons for it. If he tries to say that that’s true for me, he’s wrong—there are plenty of things that make my life worth living—and if he’s trying to make the same claim for every human being who will ever live, that strikes me as a profoundly impoverished view of the richness of human possibility. Insisting that scientific and technological progress are the only acts of human beings that differentiate their existence from that of a plant isn’t much better. Dante’s Divina Commedia, to cite the obvious example, is neither a scientific paper nor a technological invention; does that mean that it belongs in the same category as the noise made by hogs grunting in the mud?

Dante Alighieri lived in a troubled age in which scientific and technological progress were nearly absent and warfare, injustice, famine, pestilence, and the collapse of widely held beliefs about the world were matters of common experience. From that arguably unpromising raw material, he brewed one of the great achievements of human culture. It may well be that the next few centuries will be far from optimal for scientific and technological progress; it may well be that the most important thing that can be done by people who value science and technology is to figure out what can be preserved through the difficult times ahead, and do their best to see that these things reach the waiting hands of the future. If life hands you a dark age, one might say, it’s probably not a good time to brew lite beer, but there are plenty of other things you can still brew, bottle and drink.

As for me—well, all things considered, I find that being alive beats the stuffing out of the alternative, and that’s true even though I live in a troubled age in which scientific and technological progress show every sign of grinding to a halt in the near future, and in which warfare, injustice, famine, pestilence, and the collapse of widely held beliefs are matters of common experience. The notion that life has to justify itself to me seems, if I may be frank, faintly silly, and so does the comparable claim that I have to justify my existence to it, or to anyone else. Here I am; I did not make the world; quite the contrary, the world made me, and put me in the irreducibly personal situation in which I find myself. Given that I’m here, where and when I happen to be, there are any number of things that I can choose to do, or not do; and it so happens that one of the things I choose to do is to prepare, and help others prepare, for the long decline of industrial civilization and the coming of the dark age that will follow it.

And with that, dear reader, I return you to your regularly scheduled discussion of decline and fall on The Archdruid Report.