Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Heading Toward The Sidewalk

Talking about historical change is one thing when the changes under discussion are at some convenient remove in the past or the future. It’s quite another when the changes are already taking place. That’s one of the things that adds complexity to the project of this blog, because the decline and fall of modern industrial civilization isn’t something that might take place someday, if X or Y or Z happens or doesn’t happen; it’s under way now, all around us, and a good many of the tumults of our time are being driven by the unmentionable but inescapable fact that the process of decline is beginning to pick up speed.

Those tumults are at least as relevant to this blog’s project as the comparable events in the latter years of dead civilizations, and so it’s going to be necessary now and then to pause the current sequence of posts, set aside considerations of the far future for a bit, and take a look at what’s happening here and now. This is going to be one of those weeks, because a signal I’ve been expecting for a couple of years now has finally showed up, and its appearance means that real trouble may be imminent.

This has admittedly happened in a week when the sky is black with birds coming home to roost. I suspect that most of my readers have been paying at least some attention to the Ebola epidemic now spreading across West Africa. Over the last week, the World Health Organization has revealed that official statistics on the epidemic’s toll are significantly understated, the main nongovernmental organization fighting Ebola has admitted that the situation is out of anyone’s control, and a series of events neatly poised between absurdity and horror—a riot in one of Monrovia’s poorest slums directed at an emergency quarantine facility, in which looters made off with linens and bedding contaminated with the Ebola virus, and quarantined patients vanished into the crowd—may shortly plunge Liberia into scenes of a kind not witnessed since the heyday of the Black Death. The possibility that this outbreak may become a global pandemic, while still small, can no longer be dismissed out of hand.

Meanwhile, closer to home, what has become a routine event in today’s America—the casual killing of an unarmed African-American man by the police—has blown up in a decidedly nonroutine fashion, with imagery reminiscent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square being enacted night after night in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. The culture of militarization and unaccountability that’s entrenched in urban police forces in the United States has been displayed in a highly unflattering light, as police officers dressed for all the world like storm troopers on the set of a bad science fiction movie did their best to act the part, tear-gassing and beating protesters, reporters, and random passersby in an orgy of jackbooted enthusiasm blatant enough that Tea Party Republicans have started to make worried speeches about just how closely this resembles the behavior of a police state.

If the police keep it up, the Arab Spring of a few years back may just be paralleled by an American Autumn. Even if some lingering spark of common sense on the part of state and local authorities heads off that possibility, the next time a white police officer guns down an African-American man for no particular reason—and there will be a next time; such events, as noted above, are routine in the United States these days—the explosion that follows will be even more severe, and the risk that such an explosion may end up driving the emergence of a domestic insurgency is not small. I noted in a post a couple of years back that the American way of war pretty much guarantees that any country conquered by our military will pup an insurgency in short order thereafter; there’s a great deal of irony in the thought that the importation of the same model of warfare into police practice in the US may have exactly the same effect here.

It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that the sign I noted is neither of these things. No, it’s not the big volcano in Iceland that’s showing worrying signs of blowing its top, either. It’s an absurdly little thing—a minor book review in an otherwise undistinguished financial-advice blog—and it matters only because it’s a harbinger of something considerably more important.

A glance at the past may be useful here. On September 9, 1929, no less a financial periodical than Barron’s took time off from its usual cheerleading of the stock market’s grand upward movement to denounce an investment analyst named Roger Babson in heated terms. Babson’s crime? Suggesting that the grand upward movement just mentioned was part of a classic speculative bubble, and the bubble’s inevitable bust would cause an economic depression. Babson had been saying this sort of thing all through the stock market boom of the late 1920s, and until that summer, the mainstream financial media simply ignored him, as they ignored everyone else whose sense of economic reality hadn’t gone out to lunch and forgotten to come back.

For those who followed the media, in fact, the summer and fall of 1929 were notable mostly for the fact that a set of beliefs that most people took for granted—above all else, the claim that the stock market could keep on rising indefinitely—suddenly were being loudly defended all over the place, even though next to nobody was attacking them. The June issue of The American Magazine featured an interview with financier Bernard Baruch, insisting that “the economic condition of the world seems on the verge of a great forward movement.” In the July 8 issue of Barron’s, similarly, an article insisted that people who worried about how much debt was propping up the market didn’t understand the role of broker’s loans as a major new investment outlet for corporate money.

As late as October 15, when the great crash was only days away, Professor Irving Fisher of Yale’s economics department made his famous announcement to the media: “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” That sort of puffery was business as usual, then as now. Assaulting the critics of the bubble in print, by name, was not. It was only when the market was sliding toward the abyss of the 1929 crash that financial columnists publicly trained their rhetorical guns on the handful of people who had been saying all along that the boom would inevitably bust.

That’s a remarkably common feature of speculative bubbles, and could be traced in any number of historical examples, starting with the tulip bubble in the 17th century Netherlands and going on from there. Some of my readers may well have experienced the same thing for themselves in the not too distant past, during the last stages of the gargantuan real estate bubble that popped so messily in 2008. I certainly did, and a glance back at that experience will help clarify the implications of the signal I noticed in the week just past.

Back when the real estate bubble was soaring to vertiginous and hopelessly unsustainable heights, I used to track its progress on a couple of news aggregator sites, especially Keith Brand’s lively HousingPanic blog. Now and then, as the bubble peaked and began losing air, I would sit down with a glass of scotch, a series of links to the latest absurd comments by real estate promoters, and my copy of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929—the source, by the way, of the anecdotes cited above—and enjoyed watching the rhetoric used to insist that the 2008 bubble wasn’t a bubble duplicate, in some cases word for word, the rhetoric used for the same purpose in 1929.

All the anti-bubble blogs fielded a steady stream of hostile comments from real estate investors who apparently couldn’t handle the thought that anyone might question their guaranteed ticket to unearned wealth, and Brand’s in particular saw no shortage of bare-knuckle verbal brawls. It was only in the last few months before the bubble burst, though, that pro-bubble blogs started posting personal attacks on Brand and his fellow critics, denouncing them by name in heated and usually inaccurate terms. At the time, I noted the parallel with the Barron’s attack on Roger Babson, and wondered if it meant the same thing; the events that followed showed pretty clearly that it did.

That same point may just have arrived in the fracking bubble—unsurprisingly, since that has followed the standard trajectory of speculative booms in all other respects so far. For some time now, the media has been full of proclamations about America’s allegely limitless petroleum supply, which resemble nothing so much as the airy claims about stocks made by Bernard Baruch and Irving Fisher back in 1929. Week after week, bloggers and commentators have belabored the concept of peak oil, finding new and ingenious ways to insist that it must somehow be possible to extract infinite amounts of oil from a finite planet; oddly enough, though it’s rare for anyone to speak up for peak oil on these forums, the arguments leveled against it have been getting louder and more shrill as time passes. Until recently, though, I hadn’t encountered the personal attacks that announce the imminence of the bust.

That was before this week. On August 11th, a financial-advice website hosted a fine example of the species, and rather to my surprise—I’m hardly the most influential or widely read critic of the fracking bubble, after all—it was directed at me.

Mind you, I have no objection to hostile reviews of my writing. A number of books by other people have come in for various kinds of rough treatment on this blog, and turnabout here as elsewhere is fair play. I do prefer reviewers, hostile or otherwise, to take the time to read a book of mine before they review it, but that’s not something any writer can count on; reviewers who clearly haven’t so much as opened the cover of the book on which they pass judgment have been the target of barbed remarks in literary circles since at least the 18th century. Still, a review of a book the reviewer hasn’t read is one thing, and a review of a book the author hasn’t written and the publisher hasn’t published is something else again.

That’s basically the case here. The reviewer, a stock market blogger named Andew McKillop, set out to critique a newly re-edited version of my 2008 book The Long Descent. That came as quite a surprise to me, as well as to New Society Publications, the publisher of the earlier book, since no such reissue exists. The Long Descent remains in print in its original edition, and my six other books on peak oil and the future of industrial society are, ahem, different books.

My best guess is that McKillop spotted my new title Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America in a bookshop window, and simply jumped to the conclusion that it must be a new release of the earlier book. I’m still not sure whether the result counts as a brilliant bit of surrealist performance art or a new low in what we still jokingly call journalistic ethics; in either case, it’s definitely broken new ground. Still, I hope that McKillop does better research for the people who count on him for stock advice.

Given that starting point, the rest of the review is about what you would expect. I gather that McKillop read a couple of online reviews of The Long Descent and a couple more of Decline and Fall, skimmed over a few randomly chosen posts on this blog, tossed the results together all anyhow, and jumped to the conclusion that the resulting mess was what the book was about. The result is quite a lively little bricolage of misunderstandings, non sequiturs, and straightforward fabrications—I invite anyone who cares to make the attempt to point out the place in my writings, for example, where I contrast catabolic collapse with “anabolic collapse,” whatever on earth that latter might be.

There’s a certain wry amusement to be had from going through the review and trying to figure out exactly how McKillop might have gotten this or that bit of misinformation wedged into his brain, but I’ll leave that as a party game for my readers. The point I’d like to make here is that the appearance of this attempted counterblast in a mainstream financial blog is a warning sign. It suggests that the fracking boom, like previous bubbles when they reached the shoot-the-messenger stage, may well be teetering on the brink of a really spectacular crash—and it’s not the only such sign, either.

The same questions about debt that were asked about the stock market in 1929 and the housing market in 2008 are being asked now, with increasing urgency, about the immense volume of junk bonds that are currently propping up the shale boom. Meanwhile gas and oil companies are having to drill ever more frantically and invest ever more money to keep production rates from dropping like a rock Get past the vacuous handwaving about “Saudi America,” and it’s embarrassingly clear that the fracking boom is simply one more debt-fueled speculative orgy destined for one more messy bust. It’s disguised as an energy revolution in exactly the same way that the real estate bubble was disguised as a housing revolution, the tech-stock bubble as a technological revolution, and so on back through the annals of financial delusion as far as you care to go.

Sooner or later—and much more likely sooner than later—the fracking bubble is going to pop. Just how and when that will happen is impossible to know in advance. Even making an intelligent guess at this point would require a detailed knowledge of which banks and investment firms have gotten furthest over their heads in shale leases and the like, which petroleum and natural gas firms have gone out furthest on a financial limb, and so on. That’s the kind of information that the companies in question like to hide from one another, not to mention the general public; it’s thus effectively inaccessible to archdruids, which means that we’ll just have to wait for the bankruptcies, the panic selling, and the wet thud of financiers hitting Wall Street sidewalks to find out which firms won the fiscal irresponsibility sweepstakes this time around.

One way or another, the collapse of the fracking boom bids fair to deliver a body blow to the US economy, at a time when most sectors of that economy have yet to recover from the bruising they received at the hands of the real estate bubble and bust. Depending on how heavily and cluelessly foreign banks and investors have been sucked into the boom—again, hard to say without inside access to closely guarded financial information—the popping of the bubble could sucker-punch national economies elsewhere in the world as well. Either way, it’s going to be messy, and the consequences will likely include a second helping of the same unsavory stew of bailouts for the rich, austerity for the poor, bullying of weaker countries by their stronger neighbors, and the like, that was dished up with such reckless abandon in the aftermath of the 2008 real estate bust. Nor is any of this going to make it easier to deal with potential pandemics, simmering proto-insurgencies in the American heartland, or any of the other entertaining consequences of our headfirst collision with the sidewalks of reality.

The consequences may go further than this. The one detail that sets the fracking bubble apart from the real estate bubble, the tech stock bubble, and their kin further back in economic history is that fracking wasn’t just sold to investors as a way to get rich quick; it was also sold to them, and to the wider public as well, as a way to evade the otherwise inexorable reality of peak oil. 2008, it bears remembering, was not just the year that the real estate bubble crashed, and dragged much of the global economy down with it; it was also the year when all those prophets of perpetual business as usual who insisted that petroleum would never break $60 a barrel or so got to eat crow, deep-fried in light sweet crude, when prices spiked upwards of $140 a barrel. All of a sudden, all those warnings about peak oil that experts had been issuing since the 1950s became a great deal harder to dismiss out of hand.

The fracking bubble thus had mixed parentage; its father may have been the same merciless passion for fleecing the innocent that always sets the cold sick heart of Wall Street aflutter, but its mother was the uneasy dawn of recognition that by ignoring decades of warnings and recklessly burning through the Earth’s finite reserves of fossil fuels just as fast as they could be extracted, the industrial world has backed itself into a corner from which the only way out leads straight down. White’s Law, one of the core concepts of human ecology, points out that economic development is directly correlated with energy per capita; as depletion overtakes production and energy per capita begins to decline, the inevitable result is a long era of economic contraction, in which a galaxy of economic and cultural institutions predicated on continued growth will stop working, and those whose wealth and influence depend on those institutions will be left with few choices short of jumping out a Wall Street window.

The last few years of meretricious handwaving about fracking as the salvation of our fossil-fueled society may thus mark something rather more significant than another round of the pervasive financial fraud that’s become the lifeblood of the US economy in these latter days. It’s one of the latest—and maybe, just maybe, one of the last—of the mental evasions that people in the industrial world have used in the futile but fateful attempt to pretend that pursuing limitless economic growth on a finite and fragile planet is anything other than a guaranteed recipe for disaster. When the fracking bubble goes to its inevitable fate, and most of a decade of babbling about limitless shale oil takes its proper place in the annals of human idiocy, it’s just possible that some significant number of people will realize that the universe is under no obligation to provide us will all the energy and other resources we want, just because we happen to want them. I wouldn’t bet the farm on that, but I think the possibility is there.

One swallow does not a summer make, mind you, and one fumbled attempt at a hostile book review on one website doesn’t prove that the same stage in the speculative bubble cycle that saw frantic denunciations flung at Roger Babson and Keith Brand—the stage that comes immediately before the crash—has arrived this time around. I would encourage my readers to watch for similar denunciations aimed at more influential and respectable fracking-bubble critics such as Richard Heinberg or Kurt Cobb. Once those start showing up, hang onto your hat; it’s going to be a wild ride.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dark Age America: A Bitter Legacy

Civilizations normally leave a damaged environment behind them when they fall, and ours shows every sign of following that wearily familiar pattern. The nature and severity of the ecological damage a civilization leaves behind, though, depend on two factors, one obvious, the other less so. The obvious factor derives from the nature of the technologies the civilization deployed in its heyday; the less obvious one depends on how many times those same technologies had been through the same cycle of rise and fall before the civilization under discussion got to them.

There’s an important lesson in this latter factor. Human technologies almost always start off their trajectory through time as environmental disasters looking for a spot marked X, which they inevitably find, and then have the rough edges knocked off them by centuries or millennia of bitter experience. When our species first developed the technologies that enabled hunting bands to take down big game animals, the result was mass slaughter and the extinction of entire species of megafauna, followed by famine and misery; rinse and repeat, and you get the exquisite ecological balance that most hunter-gatherer societies maintained in historic times. In much the same way, early field agriculture yielded bumper crops of topsoil loss and subsistence failure to go along with its less reliable yields of edible grain, and the hard lessons from that experience have driven the rise of more sustainable agricultural systems—a process completed in our time with the emergence of organic agricultural methods that build soil rather than depleting it.

Any brand new mode of human subsistence is thus normally cruising for a bruising, and will get it in due time at the hands of the biosphere. That’s not precisely good news for modern industrial civilization, because ours is a brand new mode of human subsistence; it’s the first human society ever to depend almost entirely on extrasomatic energy—energy, that is, that doesn’t come from human or animal muscles fueled by food crops. In my book The Ecotechnic Future, I’ve suggested that industrial civilization is simply the first and most wasteful of a new mode of human society, the technic society. Eventually, I proposed, technic societies will achieve the same precise accommodation to ecological reality that hunter-gatherer societies worked out long ago, and agricultural societies have spent the last eight thousand years or so pursuing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help us much just now.

Modern industrial civilization, in point of fact, has been stunningly clueless in its relationship with the planetary cycles that keep us all alive. Like those early bands of roving hunters who slaughtered every mammoth they could find and then looked around blankly for something to eat, we’ve drawn down the finite stocks of fossil fuels on this planet without the least concern about what the future would bring—well, other than the occasional pious utterance of thoughtstopping mantras of the “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something” variety. That’s not the only thing we’ve drawn down recklessly, of course, and the impact of our idiotically short-term thinking on our long-term prospects will be among the most important forces shaping the next five centuries of North America’s future.

Let’s start with one of the most obvious: topsoil, the biologically active layer of soil that can support food crops. On average, as a result of today’s standard agricultural methods, North America’s arable land loses almost three tons of topsoil from each cultivated acre every single year. Most of the topsoil that made North America the breadbasket of the 20th century world is already gone, and at the current rate of loss, all of it will be gone by 2075. That would be bad enough if we could rely on artificial fertilizer to make up for the losses, but by 2075 that won’t be an option: the entire range of chemical fertilizers are made from nonrenewable resources—natural gas is the main feedstock for nitrate fertilizers, rock phosphate for phosphate fertilizers, and so on—and all of these are depleting fast.

Topsoil loss driven by bad agricultural practices is actually quite a common factor in the collapse of civilizations. Sea-floor cores in the waters around Greece, for example, show a spike in sediment deposition from rapidly eroding topsoil right around the end of the Mycenean civilization, and another from the latter years of the Roman Empire. If archeologists thousands of years from now try the same test, they’ll find yet another eroded topsoil layer at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the legacy of an agricultural system that put quarterly profits ahead of the relatively modest changes that might have preserved the soil for future generations.

The methods of organic agriculture mentioned earlier could help very significantly with this problem, since those include techniques for preserving existing topsoil, and rebuilding depleted soil at a rate considerably faster than nature’s pace. To make any kind of difference, though, those methods would have to be deployed on a very broad scale, and then passed down through the difficult years ahead. Lacking that, even where desertification driven by climate change doesn’t make farming impossible, a very large part of today’s North American farm belt will likely be unable to support crops for centuries or millennia to come. Eventually, the same slow processes that replenished the soil on land scraped bare by the ice age glaciers will do the same thing to land stripped of topsoil by industrial farming, but “eventually” will not come quickly enough to spare our descendants many hungry days.

The same tune in a different key is currently being played across the world’s oceans, and as a result my readers can look forward, in the not too distant future, to tasting the last piece of seafood they will ever eat. Conservatively managed, the world’s fish stocks could have produced large yields indefinitely, but they were not conservatively managed; where regulation was attempted, political and economic pressure consistently drove catch limits above sustainable levels, and of course cheating was pervasive and the penalties for being caught were merely another cost of doing business. Fishery after fishery has accordingly collapsed, and the increasingly frantic struggle to feed seven billion hungry mouths is unlikely to leave any of those that remain intact for long.

Worse, all of this is happening in oceans that are being hammered by other aspects of our collective ecological stupidity. Global climate change, by boosting the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, is acidifying the oceans and causing sweeping shifts in oceanic food chains. Those shifts involve winners as well as losers; where calcium-shelled diatoms and corals are suffering population declines, seaweeds and algae, which are not so sensitive to changes in the acid-alkaline balance, are thriving on the increased CO2 in the water—but the fish that feed on seaweeds and algae are not the same as those that feed on diatoms and corals, and the resulting changes are whipsawing ocean ecologies.

Close to shore, toxic effluents from human industry and agriculture are also adding to the trouble. The deep oceans, all things considered, offer sparse pickings for most saltwater creatures; the vast majority of ocean life thrives within a few hundred miles of land, where rivers, upwelling zones, and the like provide nutrients in relative abundance. We’re already seeing serious problems with toxic substances concentrating up through oceanic food chains; unless communities close to the water’s edge respond to rising sea levels with consummate care, hauling every source of toxic chemicals out of reach of the waters, that problem is only going to grow worse. Different species react differently to this or that toxin; some kind of aquatic ecosystem will emerge and thrive even in the most toxic estuaries of deindustrial North America, but it’s unlikely that those ecosystems will produce anything fit for human beings to eat, and making the attempt may not be particularly good for one’s health.

Over the long run, that, too, will right itself. Bioaccumulated toxins will end up entombed in the muck on the ocean’s floor, providing yet another interesting data point for the archeologists of the far future; food chains and ecosystems will reorganize, quite possibly in very different forms from the ones they have now. Changes in water temperature, and potentially in the patterns of ocean currents, will bring unfamiliar species into contact with one another, and living things that survive the deindustrial years in isolated refugia will expand into their former range. These are normal stages in the adaptation of ecosystems to large-scale shocks. Still, those processes of renewal take time, and the deindustrial dark ages ahead of us will be long gone before the seas are restored to biological abundance.

Barren lands and empty seas aren’t the only bitter legacies we’re leaving our descendants, of course. One of the others has received quite a bit of attention on the apocalyptic end of the peak oil blogosphere for several years now—since March 11, 2011, to be precise, when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster got under way. Nuclear power exerts a curious magnetism on the modern mind, drawing it toward extremes in one direction or the other; the wildly unrealistic claims about its limitless potential to power the future that have been made by its supporters are neatly balanced by the wildly unrealistic claims about its limitless potential as a source of human extinction on the other. Negotiating a path between those extremes is not always an easy matter.

In both cases, though, it’s easy enough to clear away at least some of the confusion by turning to documented facts. It so happens, for instance, that no nation on Earth has ever been able to launch or maintain a nuclear power program without huge and continuing subsidies. Nuclear power never pays for itself; absent a steady stream of government handouts, it doesn’t make enough economic sense to attract enough private investment to cover its costs, much less meet the huge and so far unmet expenses of nuclear waste storage; and in the great majority of cases, the motive behind the program, and the subsidies, is pretty clearly the desire of the local government to arm itself with nuclear weapons at any cost. Thus the tired fantasy of cheap, abundant nuclear power needs to be buried alongside the Eisenhower-era propagandists who dreamed it up in the first place.

It also happens, of course, that there have been quite a few catastrophic nuclear accidents since the dawn of the atomic age just over seventy years ago, especially but not only in the former Soviet Union. Thus it’s no secret what the consequences are when a reactor melts down, or when mismanaged nuclear waste storage facilities catch fire and spew radioactive smoke across the countryside. What results is an unusually dangerous industrial accident, on a par with the sudden collapse of a hydroelectric dam or a chemical plant explosion that sends toxic gases drifting into a populated area; it differs from these mostly in that the contamination left behind by certain nuclear accidents remains dangerous for many years after it comes drifting down from the sky.

There are currently 69 operational nuclear power plants scattered unevenly across the face of North America, with 127 reactors among them; there are also 48 research reactors, most of them much smaller and less vulnerable to meltdown than the power plant reactors. Most North American nuclear power plants store spent fuel rods in pools of cooling water onsite, since the spent rods continue to give off heat and radiation and there’s no long term storage for high-level nuclear waste. Neither a reactor nor a fuel rod storage pool can be left untended for long without serious trouble, and a great many things—including natural disasters and human stupidity—can push them over into meltdown, in the case of reactors, or conflagration, in the case of spent fuel rods. In either case, or both, you’ll get a plume of toxic, highly radioactive smoke drifting in the wind, and a great many people immediately downwind will die quickly or slowly, depending on the details and the dose.

It’s entirely reasonable to predict that this is going to happen to some of those 175 reactors. In a world racked by climate change, resource depletion, economic disintegration, political and social chaos, mass movements of populations, and the other normal features of the decline and fall of a civilization and the coming of a dark age, the short straw is going to be drawn sooner or later, and serious nuclear disasters are going to happen. That doesn’t justify the claim that every one of those reactors is going to melt down catastrophically, every one of the spent-fuel storage facilities is going to catch fire, and so on—though of course that claim does make for more colorful rhetoric.

In the real world, for reasons I’ll be discussing further in this series of posts, we don’t face the kind of sudden collapse that could make all the lights go out at once. Some nations, regions, and local areas within regions will slide faster than others, or be deliberately sacrificed so that resources of one kind or another can be used somewhere else. As long as governments retain any kind of power at all, keeping nuclear facilities from adding to the ongoing list of disasters will be high on their agendas; shutting down reactors that are no longer safe to operate is one step they can certainly do, and so is hauling spent fuel rods out of the pools and putting them somewhere less immediately vulnerable.

It’s probably a safe bet that the further we go along the arc of decline and fall, the further these decommissioning exercises will stray from the optimum. I can all too easily imagine fuel rods being hauled out of their pools by condemned criminals or political prisoners, loaded on flatbed rail cars, taken to some desolate corner of the expanding western deserts, and tipped one at a time into trenches dug in the desert soil, then covered over with a few meters of dirt and left to the elements. Sooner or later the radionuclides will leak out, and that desolate place will become even more desolate, a place of rumors and legends where those who go don’t come back.

Meanwhile, the reactors and spent-fuel pools that don’t get shut down even in so cavalier a fashion will become the focal points of dead zones of a slightly different kind. The facilities themselves will be off limits for some thousands of years, and the invisible footprints left behind by the plumes of smoke and dust will be dangerous for centuries. The vagaries of deposition and erosion are impossible to predict; in areas downwind from Chernobyl or some of the less famous Soviet nuclear accidents, one piece of overgrown former farmland may be relatively safe while another a quarter hour’s walk away may still set a Geiger counter clicking at way-beyond-safe rates. Here I imagine cow skulls on poles, or some such traditional marker, warning the unwary that they stand on the edge of accursed ground.

It’s important to keep in mind that not all the accursed ground in deindustrial North America will be the result of nuclear accidents. There are already areas on the continent so heavily contaminated with toxic pollutants of less glow-in-the-dark varieties that anyone who attempts to grow food or drink the water there can count on a short life and a wretched death. As the industrial system spirals toward its end, and those environmental protections that haven’t been gutted already get flung aside in the frantic quest to keep the system going just a little bit longer, spills and other industrial accidents are very likely to become a good deal more common than they are already.

There are methods of soil and ecosystem bioremediation that can be done with very simple technologies—for example, plants that concentrate toxic metals in their tissues so it can be hauled away to a less dangerous site, and fungi that break down organic toxins—but if they’re to do any good at all, these will have to be preserved and deployed in the teeth of massive social changes and equally massive hardships. Lacking that, and it’s a considerable gamble at this point, the North America of the future will be spotted with areas where birth defects are a common cause of infant mortality and it will be rare to see anyone over the age of forty or so without the telltale signs of cancer.

There’s a bitter irony in the fact that cancer, a relatively rare disease a century and a half ago—most childhood cancers in particular were so rare that individual cases were written up in medical journals —has become the signature disease of industrial society, expanding its occurrence and death toll in lockstep with our mindless dumping of chemical toxins and radioactive waste into the environment. What, after all, is cancer? A disease of uncontrolled growth.

I sometimes wonder if our descendants in the deindustrial world will appreciate that irony. One way or another, I have no doubt that they’ll have their own opinions about the bitter legacy we’re leaving them. Late at night, when sleep is far away, I sometimes remember Ernest Thompson Seton’s heartrending 1927 prose poem “A Lament,” in which he recalled the beauty of the wild West he had known and the desolation of barbed wire and bleached bones he had seen it become. He projected the same curve of devastation forward until it rebounded on its perpetrators—yes, that would be us—and imagined the voyagers of some other nation landing centuries from now at the ruins of Manhattan, and slowly piecing together the story of a vanished people:

Their chiefs and wiser ones shall know
That here was a wastrel race, cruel and sordid,
Weighed and found wanting,
Once mighty but forgotten now.
And on our last remembrance stone,
These wiser ones will write of us:
They desolated their heritage,
They wrote their own doom.

I suspect, though, that our descendants will put things in language a good deal sharper than this. As they think back on the people of the 20th and early 21st centuries who gave them the barren soil and ravaged fisheries, the chaotic weather and rising oceans, the poisoned land and water, the birth defects and cancers that embitter their lives, how will they remember us? I think I know. I think we will be the orcs and Nazgûl of their legends, the collective Satan of their mythology, the ancient race who ravaged the earth and everything on it so they could enjoy lives of wretched excess at the future’s expense. They will remember us as evil incarnate—and from their perspective, it’s by no means easy to dispute that judgment.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Dark Age America: The Rising Oceans

The vagaries of global climate set in motion by our species’ frankly brainless maltreatment of the only atmosphere we’ve got, the subject of last week’s post here, have another dimension that bears close watching. History, as I suggested last week, can be seen as human ecology in its transformations over time, and every ecosystem depends in the final analysis on the available habitat. For human beings, the habitat that matters is dry land with adequate rainfall and moderate temperatures; we’ve talked about the way that anthropogenic climate change is interfering with the latter two, but it promises to have  significant impacts on the first of those requirements as well.

It’s helpful to put all this in the context of deep time. For most of the last billion years or so, the Earth has been a swampy jungle planet where ice and snow were theoretical possibilities only. Four times in that vast span, though, something—scientists are still arguing about what—turned the planet’s thermostat down sharply, resulting in ice ages millions of years in length. The most recent of these downturns began cooling the planet maybe ten million years ago, in the Miocene epoch; a little less than two million years ago, at the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch, the first of the great continental ice sheets began to spread across the Northern Hemisphere, and the ice age was on.

We’re still in it. During an ice age, a complex interplay of the Earth’s rotational and orbital wobbles drives the Milankovich cycle, a cyclical warming and cooling of the planet that takes around 100,000 years to complete, with long glaciations broken by much shorter interglacials. We’re approaching the end of the current interglacial, and it’s estimated that the current ice age has maybe another ten million years to go; one consequence is that at some point a few millennia in the future, we can pretty much count on the arrival of a new glaciation. In the meantime, we’ve still got continental ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland, and a significant amount of year-round ice in mountains in various corners of the world. That’s normal for an interglacial, though not for most of the planet’s history.

The back-and-forth flipflop between glaciations and interglacials has a galaxy of impacts on the climate and ecology of the planet, but one of the most obvious comes from the simple fact that all the frozen water needed to form a continental ice sheet have to come from somewhere, and the only available “somewhere” on this planet is the oceans. As glaciers spread, sea level drops accordingly; 18,000 years ago, when the most recent glaciation hit its final peak, sea level was more than 400 feet lower than today, and roaming tribal hunters could walk all the way from Holland to Ireland and keep going, following reindeer herds a good distance into what’s now the northeast Atlantic.

What followed has plenty of lessons on offer for our future. It used to be part of the received wisdom that ice ages began and ended with, ahem, glacial slowness, and there still seems to be good reason to think that the beginnings are fairly gradual, but the ending of the most recent ice age involved periods of very sudden change. 18,000 years ago, as already mentioned, the ice sheets were at their peak; about 16,000 years ago, the planetary climate began to warm, pushing the ice into a slow retreat. Around 14,700 years ago, the warm Bölling phase arrived, and the ice sheets retreated hundreds of miles; according to several studies, the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed completely at this time.

The Bölling gave way after around 600 years to the Older Dryas cold period, putting the retreat of the ice on hold. After another six centuries or so, the Older Dryas gave way to a new warm period, the Alleröd, which sent the ice sheets reeling back and raised sea levels hundreds of feet worldwide. Then came a new cold phase, the frigid Younger Dryas, which brought temperatures back for a few centuries to their ice age lows, cold enough to allow the West Antarctic ice sheet to reestablish itself and to restore tundra conditions over large sections of the Northern Hemisphere. Ice core measurements suggest that the temperature drop hit fast, in a few decades or less—a useful reminder that rapid climate change can come from natural sources as well as from our smokestacks and tailpipes.

Just over a millennium later, right around 9600 BC, the Boreal phase arrived, and brought even more spectacular change. According to oxygen isotope measurements from Greenland ice cores—I get challenged on this point fairly often, so I’ll mention that the figure I’m citing is from Steven Mithen’s After The Ice, a widely respected 2003 survey of human prehistory—global temperatures spiked 7° C  in less than a decade, pushing the remaining ice sheets into rapid collapse and sending sea levels soaring. Over the next few thousand years, the planet’s ice cover shrank to a little less than its current level, and sea level rose a bit above what it is today; a gradual cooling trend beginning around 6000 BCE brought both to the status they had at the beginning of the industrial era.

Scientists still aren’t sure what caused the stunning temperature spike at the beginning of the Boreal phase, but one widely held theory is that it was driven by large-scale methane releases from the warming oceans and thawing permafrost. The ocean floor contains huge amounts of methane trapped in unstable methane hydrates; permafrost contains equally huge amounts of dead vegetation that’s kept from rotting by subfreezing temperatures, and when the permafrost thaws, that vegetation rots and releases more methane. Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it’s also much more transient—once released into the atmosphere, methane breaks down into carbon dioxide and water relatively quickly, with an estimated average lifespan of ten years or so—and so it’s quite a plausible driver for the sort of sudden shock that can be traced in the Greenland ice cores.

If that’s what did it, of course, we’re arguably well on our way there. I discussed in a previous post here credible reports that large sections of the Arctic ocean are fizzing with methane, and I suspect many of my readers have heard of the recently discovered craters in Siberia that appear to have been caused by methane blowouts from thawing permafrost. On top of the current carbon dioxide spike, a methane spike would do a fine job of producing the kind of climate chaos I discussed in last week’s post. That doesn’t equal the kind of runaway feedback loop beloved of a certain sect of contemporary apocalypse-mongers, because there are massive sources of negative feedback that such claims always ignore, but it seems quite likely that the decades ahead of us will be enlivened by a period of extreme climate turbulence driven by significant methane releases.

Meanwhile, two of the world’s three remaining ice sheets—the West Antarctic and Greenland sheets—have already been destabilized by rising temperatures. Between them, these two ice sheets contain enough water to raise sea level around 50 feet globally, and the estimate I’m using for anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions over the next century provides enough warming to cause the collapse and total melting of both of them. All that water isn’t going to hit the world’s oceans overnight, of course, and a great deal depends on just how fast the melting happens.

The predictions for sea level rise included in the last few IPCC reports assume a slow, linear process of glacial melting. That’s appropriate as a baseline, but the evidence from paleoclimatology shows that ice sheets collapse in relatively sudden bursts of melting, producing what are termed “global meltwater pulses” that can be tracked worldwide by a variety of proxy measurements. Mind you, “relatively sudden” in geological terms is slow by the standards of a human lifetime; the complete collapse of a midsized ice sheet like Greenland’s or West Antarctica’s can take five or six centuries, and that in turn involves periods of relatively fast melting and sea level rise, interspersed with slack periods when sea level creeps up much more slowly.

So far, at least, the vast East Antarctic ice sheet has shown only very modest changes, and most current estimates suggest that it would take something far more drastic than the carbon output of our remaining economically accessible fossil fuel reserves to tip it over into instability; this is a good thing, as East Antarctica’s ice fields contain enough water to drive sea level up 250 feet or so.  Thus a reasonable estimate for sea level change over the next five hundred years involves the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic sheets and some modest melting on the edges of the East Antarctic sheet, raising sea level by something over 50 feet, delivered in a series of unpredictable bursts divided by long periods of relative stability or slow change.

The result will be what paleogeographers call “marine transgression”—the invasion of dry land and fresh water by the sea. Fifty feet of sea level change adds up to quite a bit of marine transgression in some areas, much less in others, depending always on local topography. Where the ground is low and flat, the rising seas can penetrate a very long way; in California, for example, the state capital at Sacramento is many miles from the ocean, but since it’s only 30 feet above sea level and connected to the sea by a river, its  skyscrapers will be rising out of a brackish estuary long before Greenland and West Antarctica are bare of ice. The port cities of the Gulf coast are also on the front lines—New Orleans is actually below sea level, and will likely be an early casualty, but every other Gulf port from Brownsville, Texas (elevation 43 feet) to Tampa, Florida (elevation 15 feet) faces the same fate, and most East and West Coast ports face substantial flooding of economically important districts.

The flooding of Sacramento isn’t the end of the world, and there may even be some among my readers who would consider it to be a good thing. What I’d like to point out, though, is the economic impact of the rising waters. Faced with an unpredictable but continuing rise in sea level, communities and societies face one of two extremely expensive choices. They can abandon billions of dollars of infrastructure to the sea and rebuild further inland, or they can invest billions of dollars in flood control. Because the rate of sea level change can’t be anticipated, furthermore, there’s no way to know in advance how far to relocate or how high to build the barriers at any given time, and there are often hard limits to how much change can be done in advance:  port cities, for example, can’t just move away from the sea and still maintain a functioning economy.

This is a pattern we’ll be seeing over and over again in this series of posts. Societies descending into dark ages reliably get caught on the horns of a brutal dilemma. For any of a galaxy of reasons, crucial elements of infrastructure no longer do the job they once did, but reworking or replacing them runs up against two critical difficulties that are hardwired into the process of decline itself. The first is that, as time passes, the resources needed to do the necessary work become increasingly scarce; the second is that, as time passes, the uncertainties about what needs to be done become increasingly large.

The result can be tracked in the decline of every civilization. At first, failing systems are replaced with some success, but the economic impact of the replacement process becomes an ever-increasing burden, and the new systems never do quite manage to work as well as the older ones did in their heyday. As the process continues, the costs keep mounting and the benefits become less reliable; more and more often, scarce resources end up being wasted or put to counterproductive uses because the situation is too uncertain to allow for their optimum allocation. With each passing year, decision makers have to figure out how much of the dwindling stock of resources can be put to productive uses and how much has to be set aside for crisis management, and the raw uncertainty of the times guarantees that these decisions will very often turn out wrong. Eventually, the declining curve in available resources and the rising curve of uncertainty intersect to produce a crisis that spins out of control, and what’s left of a community, an economic sector, or a whole civilization goes to pieces under the impact.

It’s not too hard to anticipate how that will play out in the century or so immediately ahead of us. If, as I’ve suggested, we can expect the onset of a global meltwater pulse from the breakup of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets at some point in the years ahead, the first upward jolt in sea level will doubtless be met with grand plans for flood-control measures in some areas, and relocation of housing and economic activities in others. Some of those plans may even be carried out, though the raw economic impact of worldwide coastal flooding on a global economy already under severe strain from a chaotic climate and a variety of other factors won’t make that easy. Some coastal cities will hunker down behind hurriedly built or enlarged levees, others will abandon low-lying districts and try to rebuild further upslope, still others will simply founder and be partly or wholly abandoned—and all these choices impose costs on society as a whole.

Thereafter, in years and decades when sea level rises only slowly, the costs of maintaining flood control measures and replacing vulnerable infrastructure with new facilities on higher ground will become an unpopular burden, and the same logic that drives climate change denialism today will doubtless find plenty of hearers then as well. In years and decades when sea level surges upwards, the flood control measures and relocation projects will face increasingly severe tests, which some of them will inevitably fail. The twin spirals of rising costs and rising uncertainty will have their usual effect, shredding the ability of a failing society to cope with the challenges that beset it.

It’s even possible in one specific case to make an educated guess as to the nature of the pressures that will finally push the situation over the edge into collapse and abandonment. It so happens that three different processes that follow in the wake of rapid glacial melting all have the same disastrous consequence for the eastern shores of North America.

The first of these is isostatic rebound. When you pile billions of tons of ice on a piece of land, the land sinks, pressing down hundreds or thousands of feet into the Earth’s mantle; melt the ice, and the land rises again. If the melting happens over a brief time, geologically speaking, the rebound is generally fast enough to place severe stress on geological faults all through the region, and thus sharply increases the occurrence of earthquakes. The Greenland ice sheet is by no means exempt from this process, and many of the earthquakes in the area around a rising Greenland will inevitably happen offshore. The likely result? Tsunamis.

The second process is the destabilization of undersea sediments that build up around an ice sheet that ends in the ocean. As the ice goes away, torrents of meltwater pour into the surrounding seas, and isostatic rebound changes the slope of the underlying rock, masses of sediment break free and plunge down the continental slope into the deep ocean. Some of the sediment slides that followed the end of the last ice age were of impressive scale—the Storegga Slide off the coast of Norway around 6220 BCE, which was caused by exactly this process, sent 840 cubic miles of sediment careening down the continental slope. The likely result? More tsunamis.

The third process, which is somewhat more speculative than the first two, is the sudden blowout of large volumes of undersea methane hydrates. Several oceanographers and paleoclimatologists have argued that the traces of very large underwater slides in the Atlantic, dating from the waning days of the last ice age, may well be the traces of such blowouts. As the climate warmed, they suggest, methane hydrates on the continental shelves were destabilized by rising temperatures, and a sudden shock—perhaps delivered by an earthquake, perhaps by something else—triggered the explosive release of thousands or millions of tons of methane all at once. The likely result? Still more tsunamis.

It’s crucial to realize the role that uncertainty plays here, as in so many dimensions of our predicament. No one knows whether tsunamis driven by glacial melting will hammer the shores of the northern Atlantic basin some time in the next week, or some time in the next millennium. Even if tsunamis driven by the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet become statistically inevitable, there’s no way for anyone to know in advance the timing, scale, and direction of any such event. Efficient allocation of resources to East Coast ports becomes a nighmarish challenge when you literally have no way of knowing how soon any given investment might suddenly end up on the bottom of the Atlantic.

If human beings behave as they usually do, what will most likely happen is that the port cities of the US East Coast will keep on trying to maintain business as usual until well after that stops making any kind of economic sense. The faster the seas rise and the sooner the first tsunamis show up, the sooner that response will tip over into its opposite, and people will begin to flee in large numbers from the coasts in search of safety for themselves and their families. My working guess is that the eastern seaboard of dark age America will be sparsely populated, with communities concentrated in those areas where land well above tsunami range lies close to the sea. The Pacific and Gulf coasts will be at much less risk from tsunamis, and so may be more thickly settled; that said, during periods of rapid marine transgression, the mostly flat and vulnerable Gulf Coast may lose a great deal of land, and those who live there will need to be ready to move inland in a hurry.

All these factors make for a shift in the economic and political geography of the continent that will be of quite some importance at a later point in this series of posts. In times of rapid sea level change, maintaining the infrastructure for maritime trade in seacoast ports is a losing struggle; maritime trade is still possible without port infrastructure, but it’s rarely economically viable; and that means that inland waterways with good navigable connections to the sea will take on an even greater importance than they have today. In North America, the most crucial of those are the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Hudson River-Erie Canal linkage to the Great Lakes, and whatever port further inland replaces New Orleans—Baton Rouge is a likely candidate, due to its location and elevation above sea level—once the current Mississippi delta drowns beneath the rising seas.

Even in dark ages, as I’ll demonstrate later on, maritime trade is a normal part of life, and that means that the waterways just listed will become the economic, political, and strategic keys to most of the North American continent. The implications of that geographical reality will be the focus of a number of posts as we proceed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dark Age America: Climate

Over the next year or so, as I’ve mentioned in recent posts, I plan on tracing out as much as possible of what can be known or reasonably guessed about the next five hundred years or so of North American history—the period of the decline and fall of the civilization that now occupies that continent, the dark age in which that familiar trajectory ends, and the first stirrings of the successor societies that will rise out of its ruins. That’s a challenging project, arguably more so than anything else I’ve attempted here, and it also involves some presuppositions that may be unfamiliar even to my regular readers.

To begin with, I’m approaching history—the history of the past as well as of the future—from a strictly ecological standpoint.  I’d like to propose, in fact, that history might best be understood as the ecology of human communities, traced along the dimension of time.  Like every other ecological process, in other words, it’s shaped partly by the pressures of the senvironment and partly by the way its own subsystems interact with one another, and with the subsystems of the other ecologies around it. That’s not a common view; most historical writing these days puts human beings  at the center of the picture, with the natural world as a supposedly static background, while a minority view goes to the other extreme and fixates on natural catastrophes as the sole cause of this or that major historical change.

Neither of these approaches seem particularly useful to me. As our civilization has been trying its level best not to learn for the last couple of centuries, and thus will be learning the hard way in the years immediately ahead, the natural world is not a static background. It’s an active and constantly changing presence that responds in complex ways to human actions. Human societies, in turn, are equally active and equally changeable, and respond in complex ways to nature’s actions. The strange loops generated by a dance of action and interaction along these lines are difficult to track by the usual tools of linear thinking, but they’re the bread and butter of systems theory, and also of all those branches of ecology that treat the ecosystem rather than the individual organism as the basic unit.

The easiest way to show how this perspective works is to watch it in action, and it so happens that one of the most important factors that will shape the history of North America over the next five centuries is particularly amenable to a systems analysis. The factor I have in mind is climate.

Now of course that’s also a political hot potato just at the moment, due to the unwillingness of a great many people across the industrial world to deal with the hard fact that they can’t continue to enjoy their current lifestyles if they want a climatically and ecologically stable planet to live on. It doesn’t matter how often the planet sets new heat records, nor that the fabled Northwest Passage around the top end of Canada—which has been choked with ice since the beginning of recorded history—is open water every summer nowadays, and an increasingly important route for commercial shipping from Europe to the eastern shores of Asia; every time the planet’s increasingly chaotic weather spits out unseasonably cold days in a few places, you can count on hearing well-paid flacks and passionate amateurs alike insisting at the top of their lungs that this proves that anthropogenic climate change is nonsense.

To the extent that this reaction isn’t just propaganda, it shows a blindness to systems phenomena I’ve discussed here before: a learned inability to recognize that change in complex systems does not follow the sort of nice straight lines our current habits of thought prefer. A simple experiment can help show how complex systems respond in the real world, and in the process make it easier to make sense of the sort of climate phenomena we can count on seeing in the decades ahead.

The next time you fill a bathtub, once you’ve turned off the tap, wait until the water is still. Slip your hand into the water, slowly and gently, so that you make as little disturbance in the water as possible. Then move your hand through the water about as fast as a snail moves, and watch and feel how the water adapts to the movement, flowing gently around your hand. .

Once you’ve gotten a clear sense of that, gradually increase the speed with which your hand is moving. After you pass a certain threshold of speed, the movements of the water will take the form of visible waves—a bow wave in front of your hand, a wake behind it in which water rises and falls rhythmically, and wave patterns extending out to the edges of the tub. The faster you move your hand, the larger the waves become, and the more visible the interference patterns as they collide with one another.

Keep on increasing the speed of your hand. You’ll pass a second threshold, and the rhythm of the waves will disintegrate into turbulence: the water will churn, splash, and spray around your hand, and chaotic surges of water will lurch up and down the sides of the tub. If you keep it up, you can get a fair fraction of the bathwater on your bathroom floor, but this isn’t required for the experiment! Once you’ve got a good sense of the difference between the turbulence above the second threshold and the oscillations below it, take your hand out of the water, and watch what happens: the turbulence subsides into wave patterns, the waves shrink, and finally—after some minutes—you have still water again.

This same sequence of responses can be traced in every complex system, governing its response to every kind of disturbance in its surroundings. So long as the change stays below a certain threshold of intensity and rapidity—a threshold that differs for every system and every kind of change—the system will respond smoothly, with the least adjustment that will maintain its own internal balance. Once that threshold is surpassed, oscillations of various kinds spread through the system, growing steadily more extreme as the disturbance becomes stronger, until it passes the second threshold and the system’s oscillations collapse into turbulence and chaos. When chaotic behavior begins to emerge in an oscillating system, in other words, that’s a sign that real trouble may be sitting on the doorstep.

If global temperature were increasing in a nice even line, in other words, we wouldn’t have as much to worry about, because it would be clear from that fact that the resilience of the planet’s climate system was well able to handle the changes that were in process. Once things begin to oscillate, veering outside usual conditions in both directions, that’s a sign that the limits to resilience are coming into sight, with the possibility of chaotic variability in the planetary climate as a whole waiting not far beyond that. We can fine-tune the warning signals a good deal by remembering that every system is made up of subsystems, and those of sub-subsystems, and as a general rule of thumb, the smaller the system, the more readily it moves from local adjustment to oscillation to turbulence in response to rising levels of disturbance.

Local climate is sensitive enough, in fact, that ordinary seasonal changes can yield minor turbulence, which is why the weather is so hard to predict; regional climates are more stable, and normally cycle through an assortment of wavelike oscillations; the cycle of the seasons is one, but there are also multiyear and multidecade cycles of climate that can be tracked on a regional basis. It’s when those regional patterns start showing chaotic behavior—when, let’s say, the usually sizzling Texas summer is suddenly broken by a record cold snap in the middle of July, in a summer that’s shaping up globally to be among the hottest ever measured—that you know the whole system is coming under strain.


I’m not generally a fan of Thomas Friedman, but he scored a direct hit when he warned that what we have to worry about from anthropogenic climate change is not global warming but "global weirding:" in the terms I’ve used in this post, the emergence of chaotic shifts out of a global climate that’s been hit with too much disturbance too fast. A linear change in global temperatures would be harsh, but it would be possible to some extent to shift crop belts smoothly north in the northern hemisphere and south in the southern. If the crop belts disintegrate—if you don’t know whether the next season is going to be warm or cold, wet or dry, short or long—famines become hard to avoid, and cascading impacts on an already strained global economy add to the fun and games.  At this point, for the reasons just shown, that’s the most likely shape of the century or two ahead of us.

In theory, some of that could be avoided if the world’s nations were to stop treating the skies as an aerial sewer in which to dump greenhouse gases. In practice—well, I’ve met far too many climate change activists who still insist that they have to have SUVs to take their kids to soccer practice, and I recall the embarrassed silence that spread a while back when an important British climate scientist pointed out that maybe jetting all over the place to climate conferences was communicating the wrong message at a time when climate scientists and everyone else needed to decrease their carbon footprint. Until the people who claim to be concerned about climate change start showing a willingness to burn much less carbon, it’s unlikely that anyone else will do so, and so I think it’s a pretty safe bet that fossil fuels will continue to be extracted and burnt as long as geological and economic realities permit.

The one bleak consolation here is that those realities are a good deal less flexible than worst-case scenarios generally assume. There are two factors in particular to track here, and both unfold from net energy—the difference between the energy content of fossil fuels as they reach the end consumer and the energy input needed to get them all the way there. The first factor is simply that if a deposit of fossil carbon takes more energy to extract, process, and transport to the end user than the end user can get by burning it, the fossil carbon will stay in the ground. The poster child here is kerogen shale, which has been the bane of four decades of enthusiastic energy projects in the American West and elsewhere. There’s an immense amount of energy locked up in the Green River shale and its equivalents, but every attempt to break into that cookie jar has come to grief on the hard fact that, all things considered, it takes more energy to extract kerogen from shale than you get from burning the kerogen.

The second factor is subtler and considerably more damaging. As fossil fuel deposits with abundant net energy are exhausted, and have to be replaced by deposits with lower net energy, a larger and larger fraction of the total energy supply available to an industrial society has to be diverted from all other economic uses to the process of keeping the energy flowing.  Thus it’s not enough to point to high total energy production and insist that all’s well; the logic of net energy has to be applied here as well, and the total energy input to energy production, processing, and distribution subtracted from total energy production, to get a realistic sense of how much energy is available to power the rest of the economy—and the rest of the economy, remember, is what produces the wealth that makes it possible for individuals, communities, and nations to afford fossil fuels in the first place.

 Long before the last physically extractable deposit of fossil fuel is exhausted, in other words, fossil fuel extraction will have to stop because it’s become an energy sink rather than an energy source. Well before that point is reached, furthermore, the ability of global and national economies to meet the energy costs of fossil fuel extraction will slam face first into hard limits. Demand destruction, which is what economists call the process by which people who can’t afford to buy a product stop using it, is as important here as raw physical depletion; as economies reel under the twin burdens of depleting reserves and rising energy costs for energy production, carbon footprints will shrink willy-nilly as rapid downward mobility becomes the order of the day for most people.

Combine these factors with the economic impacts of "global weirding" itself and you’ve got a good first approximation of the forces that are already massing to terminate the fossil fuel economy with extreme prejudice in the decades ahead. How those are likely to play out the future we’re facing will be discussed at length in several future posts. For the time being, I’ll just note that I expect global fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions to peak within a decade or so to either side of 2030, and then tip over into a ragged and accelerating decline, punctuated by economic and natural disasters, that will reach the zero point of the scale well before 2100.

What that means for the future climate of North America is difficult to predict in detail but not so hard to trace in outline. From now until the end of the 21st century, perhaps longer, we can expect climate chaos, accelerating in its geographical spread and collective impact until a couple of decades after CO2 emissions peak, due to the lag time between when greenhouse gases hit the atmosphere and when their effects finally peak. As the rate of emissions slows thereafter, the turbulence will gradually abate, and some time after that—exactly when is anybody’s guess, but 2300 or so is as good a guess as any—the global climate will have settled down into a "new normal" that won’t be normal by our standards at all. Barring further curveballs from humanity or nature, that "new normal" will remain until enough excess CO2 has been absorbed by natural cycles to matter—a process that will take several millennia at least, and therefore falls outside the range of the five centuries or so I want to consider here.

An educated guess at the shape of the "new normal" is possible, because for the last few million years or so, the paleoclimatology of North America has shown a fairly reliable pattern. The colder North America has been, by and large, the heavier the rainfall in the western half of the continent. During the last Ice Age, for example, rainfall in what’s now the desert Southwest was so heavy that it produced a chain of huge pluvial (that is, rain-fed) lakes and supported relatively abundant grassland and forest ecosystems across much of what’s now sagebrush and cactus country.  Some measure of the difference can be caught from the fact that 18,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age was at its height, Death Valley was a sparkling lake surrounded by pine forests. By contrast, the warmer North America becomes, the dryer the western half of the continent gets, and the drying effect spreads east a very long ways.

After the end of the last Ice Age, for example, the world entered what nowadays gets called the Holocene Climatic Optimum; that term’s a misnomer, at least for this continent, because conditions over a good bit of North America then were optimum only for sand fleas and Gila monsters. There’s been a running debate for several decades about whether the Hypsithermal, to use the so-called Optimum’s other name, was warmer than today all over the planet or just in some regions.  Current opinion tends to favor the latter, but the difference doesn’t actually have that much impact on the issue we’re considering:  the evidence from a broad range of sources shows that North America was significantly warmer in the Hypsithermal than it is today, and so that period makes a fairly good first approximation of the conditions this continent is likely to face in a warmer world.

To make sense of the long-term change to North American climates, it’s important to remember that rainfall is far more important than temperature as a determining factor for local ecosystems. If a given region gets more than about 40 inches of rain a year, no matter what the temperature, it’ll normally support some kind of forest; if it gets between 40 and 10 inches a year, you’ve got grassland or, in polar regions, mosses and lichens; if you get less than 10 inches a year, you’ve got desert, whether it’s as hot as the Sahara or as bitterly cold as the Takla Makan. In the Hypsithermal, as the west dried out,  tallgrass prairie extended straight across the Midwest to western Pennsylvania, and much of the Great Plains were desert, complete with sand dunes.

In a world with ample fossil fuel supplies, it’s been possible to ignore such concerns, to the extent of pumping billions of gallons of water a year from aquifers or distant catchment basins to grow crops in deserts and the driest of grasslands, but as fossil fuel supplies sunset out, the shape of human settlement will once again be a function of annual rainfall, as it was everywhere on the planet before 1900 or so. If the Hypsithermal’s a valid model, as seems most likely, most of North America from the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges east across the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains will be desert, as inhospitable as any on Earth, and human settlement will be accordingly sparse: scattered towns in those few places where geology allows a permanent water supply, separated by vast desolate regions inhabited by few hardy nomads or by no one at all.

East of the Great Desert, grassland will extend for a thousand miles or more, east to the  Allegheny foothills, north to a thinner and dryer boreal forest belt shifted several hundred miles closer to the Arctic Ocean, and south to the tropical jungles of the Gulf coast. Further south, in what’s now Mexico, the tropical rain belt will move northwards with shifts in the global atmospheric circulation, and the Gulf coast east of the Sierra Madre Oriental will shift to tropical ecosystems all the way north to, and beyond, the current international border. Between the greatly expanded tropical zone in the south and east and the hyperarid deserts of the north, Mexico will be a land of sharp ecological contrasts

Factor in sea level rise, on the one hand, and the long-term impacts of soil depletion and of toxic and radioactive wastes on the other—issues complicated enough in their causes, trajectory, and results that they’re going to require separate posts—and you’ve got a fairly limited set of regions in which agriculture will be possible in a post-fossil fuel environment: basically, the eastern seaboard from the new coast west to the Alleghenies and the Great Lakes, and river valleys in the eastern half of the Mississippi basin. The midwestern grasslands will support pastoral grazing, and the jungle belts around the new Gulf coast and across southern Mexico will be suitable for tropical crops once the soil has a chance to recover, but the overall human carrying capacity of the continent will be significantly smaller than it was before the industrial age began.

Climate isn’t the only force pushing in that direction, either. We’ll get to the others in the weeks ahead as we continue exploring the deindustrial landscapes of dark age America.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Gray Light of Morning

I try to wear my archdruid’s hat lightly in these essays, but every so often I field questions that touch directly on the issues of ultimate meaning that our culture, however clumsily, classifies as “religious.” Two comments in response to the post here two weeks ago raised such issues, in a way that’s relevant enough to this series of posts and important enough to the broader project of this blog to demand a response.

One of them—tip of the aforementioned archdruid’s hat to Repent—asked, “As a Druid, what are your thoughts about divine purpose, reincarnation, and our purpose in the eyes of God? What do you think future ‘ecotechnic’ societies have yet to achieve that will be worthwhile to pursue, that our descendants should suffer through the dark age towards?” The other—tip of the hat to Yupped—asked, “What do you do if you see the big picture of what’s happening around you? How did those early adopters of decline in other collapsing societies maintain their sanity when they knew what was coming? I don’t think I have the mind or the temperament to tell myself stories about the transcendent meaning of suffering in an age of social collapse.”

Those are serious questions, and questions like them are being raised more and more often these days, on this blog and in a great many other places as well. People are beginning to come to grips with the fact that they can no longer count on faith in limitless technological progress to give them an easy answer to the enduring questions of human existence.  As they do that, they’re also having to confront those questions all over again, and finding out in the process that the solution that modern industrial civilization claimed to offer for those same questions was never actually a solution at all.

Psychologists have a concept they call “provisional living.” That’s the insistence, so often heard from people whose lives are stuck on a dysfunctional merry-go-round of self-inflicted crisis, that everything they don’t like about their lives will change just as soon as something else happens: as soon as they lose twenty pounds, get a divorce, quit their lousy job, or what have you. Of course the weight never goes away, the divorce papers never get filed, and so on, because the point of the exercise is to allow daydreams of an imaginary life in which they get everything they think they want take the place of the hard work and hard choices inseparable from personal change in the real world. What provisional living offers the individual neurotic, in turn, faith in the inevitability and beneficence of progress offers industrial society as a whole—or, more precisely, faith in progress used to offer that, back when the promises made in its name didn’t yet look quite so threadbare as they do today.

There was always a massive political subtext in those promises.  The poor were encouraged to believe that technological progress will someday generate so much wealth that their children and grandchildren will be rich; the sick and dying, to dream about a future where medical progress will make every disease curable; the oppressed, to hope for a day when social progress will grant everyone the fair treatment they can’t reliably get here and now, and so on. Meanwhile, and crucially, members of the privileged classes who became uncomfortable the mismatch between industrial civilization’s glittering rhetoric and its tawdry reality were encouraged to see that mismatch as a passing phase that will be swept away by progress at some undefined point in the future, and thus to limit their efforts to change the system to the sort of well-meaning gestures that don’t seriously inconvenience the status quo.

As real as the political subtext was, it’s a mistake to see the myth of progress purely as a matter of propaganda. During the heyday of industrialism, that myth was devoutly believed by a great many people, at all points along the social spectrum, many of whom saw it as the best chance they had for positive change. Faith in progress was a social fact of vast importance, one that shaped the lives of individuals, communities, and nations. The hope of upward mobility that inspired the poor to tolerate the often grueling conditions of their lives, the dream of better living through technology that kept the middle classes laboring at the treadmill, the visions of human destiny that channeled creative minds into the service of  existing institutions—these were real and powerful forces in their day, and drew on high hopes and noble ideals as well as less exalted motives.

The problem that we face now is precisely that those hopes and dreams and visions have passed their pull date. With each passing year, more people have noticed the widening gap between the future we were supposed to get and the one that’s actually been delivered to our doorstep; with each passing year, the voices raised in defense of the old rhetoric of perpetual progress get more defensive, and the once-sparkling imagery they offer for our contemplation looks more and more shopworn. One by one, we are waking up in a cold and unfamiliar place, and the gray light of morning does not bring us good news.

It would be hard enough to face the difficult future ahead of us if we came to the present moment out of an era of sober realism and close attention to the hard facts of the human condition. It’s far harder to find ourselves where we are when that forces us to own up to the hard fact that we’ve been lying to ourselves for three hundred years. Disillusionment is a bitter pill at the best of times.  When the illusion that’s just been shattered has been telling us that the future is obliged to conform to our fondest fantasies, whatever those happen to be, it’s no wonder that it’s as unwelcome as it is.

Bitter though the pill may be, though, it’s got to be choked down, and like the bitter medicines of an earlier day, it has a tonic effect. Come to terms with the fact that faith in progress was always destined to be disappointed, that the law of diminishing returns and the hard limits of thermodynamics made the dream of endless guaranteed betterment a delusion—an appealing delusion, but a delusion all the same—and after the shock wears off, you’ll find yourself standing on common ground shared with the rest of your species, asking questions that they asked and answered in their time.

Most of the people who have ever lived, it bears remembering, had no expectation that the future would be any better than the world that they saw around them. The majority of them assumed as a matter of course that the future would be much like the present, while quite a few of them believed instead that it would be worse.  Down through the generations, they faced the normal human condition of poverty, sickness, toil, grief, injustice, and the inevitability of their own deaths, and still found life sufficiently worth living to meet the challenges of making a living, raising families, and facing each day as it came.

That’s normal for our species.  Buying into a fantasy that insists that the universe is under an obligation to fulfill your daydreams is not. Get past that fantasy, and past the shock of disillusionment that follows its departure, and it’s not actually that difficult to make sense of a world that doesn’t progress and shows no interest in remaking itself to fit an overdeveloped sense of human entitlement. The downside is that you have to give up any attempt to smuggle the same fantasy back into your mind under some other name or form, and when some such belief system has been central to the worldview of your culture for the last three centuries or so, it’s always tempting to find some way to retrieve the fantasy. Still, falling in with that temptation  just lands you back where you were, waiting for a future the universe is serenely unwilling to provide.

It’s probably worth noting that you also have to give up the equal and opposite fantasy that claims that the universe is under an obligation to fulfill a different set of daydreams, the kind that involves the annihilation of everything you don’t like in the universe, whether or not that includes yourself. That’s simply another way of playing the game of provisional living: “I don’t have to do anything because X is supposed to happen (and it won’t)” amounts in practice to the same thing as “I won’t do anything until X happens (and it won’t)”—that is to say, it’s just one more comfortable evasion of responsibility.

There are more constructive ways to deal with the decidedly mixed bag that human existence hands us. If I may risk a significant oversimplification, there are broadly speaking three ways that work. It so happens that the ancient Greeks, who grappled just as incisively with these issues as they did with so much else, evolved three schools of philosophy, each of which took one of these three ways as its central theme. They weren’t the only ones to do that in a thoughtful fashion; those of my readers who know their way around the history of ideas will be able to name any number of examples from other societies and other ages.  I propose to use Greek examples here simply because they’re the schools with which I’m most familiar. As Charles Fort said, one traces a circle beginning anywhere.

The first of the three approaches I have in mind starts with the realization that for most of us, all things considered, being alive beats the stuffing out of the alternative. While life contains plenty of sources of misery, it also contains no shortage of delights, even when today’s absurdly complex technostructure isn’t there to provide them; furthermore, the mind that pays close attention to its own experiences will soon notice that a fairly large percentage of its miseries are self-inflicted, born of pointless worrying about future troubles or vain brooding over past regrets. Unlearn those habits, stop insisting that life is horrible because it isn’t perfect, and it’s generally not too hard to learn to enjoy the very real pleasures that life has to offer and to tolerate its less pleasant features with reasonable grace.

That’s the approach taught by Epicurus, the founder of the Epicurean school of philosophy in ancient Greece. It’s also the foundation of what William James called the healthy-minded way of thinking, the sort of calm realism you so often see in people who’ve been through hard times and come out the other side in one piece. Just now, it’s a very difficult philosophy for many people in the world’s industrial nations to take up, precisely because most of us haven’t been through hard times; we’ve been through an age of extravagance and excess, and like most people in that position, we’re finding the letdown at the party’s end far more difficult to deal with than any actual suffering we might be facing. Get past that common reaction, and the Epicurean way has much to offer.

If it has a weakness, it’s that attending to the good things in life can be very hard work when those good things are in short supply. That’s when the second approach comes into its own. It starts from the  realization that whether life is good or not, here we are, and we each have to choose how we’re going to respond to that stark fact. The same unlearning that shows the Epicurean to avoid self-inflicted misery is a first step, a clearing of the decks that makes room for the decisions that matter, but once this is taken care of, the next step is to face up to the fact that there are plenty of things in the world that could and should be changed, if only someone were willing to get up off the sofa and make the effort required. The second approach thus becomes a philosophy of action, and when action requires risking one’s life—and in really hard times, it very often does—those who embrace the second approach very often find themselves saying, “Well, what of it? I’m going to die sooner or later anyway.”

That’s the approach taught by Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy in ancient Greece. It’s among the most common ways of thought in dark ages, sometimes worked out as a philosophy, sometimes expressed in pure action: the ethos of the Spartans and the samurai. That way of thinking about life is taken to its logical extreme in the literature of the pagan Teutonic peoples: you will die, says the Elder Edda, the world will die, even the gods will die, and none of that matters. All that matters is doing the right thing, because it’s the right thing, and because you’ve learned to embrace the certainty of your death and so don’t have to worry about anything but doing the right thing. 

Now of course the same choice can express itself in less stark forms. Every one of my readers who’s had the experience of doing something inconvenient or unpleasant just because it’s the right thing to do has some sense of how that works, and why.  In a civilization on the downward arc, there are many inconvenient or unpleasant things that very badly need to be done, and choosing one of them and doing it is a remarkably effective response to the feelings of meaninglessness and helplessness that afflict so many people just now.  Those who argue that you don’t know whether or not your actions will have any results in the long run are missing the point, because from the perspective I’ve just sketched out, the consequences don’t matter either.  Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum, as the Roman Stoics liked to say:  let justice be done, even if it brings the sky crashing down. 

So those, broadly speaking, are the first two ways that people have dealt constructively with the human condition: in simplest terms, either learn to live with what life brings you, or decide to do something about it. The first choice may seem a little simplistic and the second one may seem a little stark, but both work—that is, both are psychologically healthy responses that often yield good results, which is more than can be said for habits of thought that require the universe to either cater to our fantasies of entitlement or destroy itself to satisfy our pique. Both also mesh fairly well with the habitual material-mindedness of contemporary culture, the assumption that the only things that really matter are those you can hit with a stick, which is common to most civilizations toward the end of their history.

The third option I have in mind also works, but it doesn’t mesh at all with the assumption just noted. Current confusions about the alternatives to that assumption run deep enough that some care will be needed in explaining just what I mean.

The third option starts with the sense that the world as we normally perceive it is not quite real—not illusory, strictly speaking, but derivative. It depends on something else, something that stands outside the world of our ordinary experience and differs from that world not just in detail but in kind.  Since this “something else” is apart from the things we normally use language to describe, it’s remarkably difficult to define or describe in any straightforward way, though something of its nature can be shared with other people through the more roundabout means of metaphor and symbol. Elusive as it is, it can’t simply be ignored, because it shapes the world of our ordinary experience, not according to some human agenda but according to a pattern of its own.

I’d encourage my readers to notice with some care what’s not being said here. The reality that stands behind the world of our ordinary experience is not subject to human manipulation; it isn’t answerable to our fantasies or to our fears.  The viewpoint I’m suggesting is just about as far as you can get from the fashionable notion that human beings create their own reality—which, by the way, is just one more way our overdeveloped sense of entitlement shapes our habits of thinking.  As objects of our own and other’s perceptions, we belong to the world of the not quite real. Under certain circumstances, though, human beings can move into modes of nonordinary perception in which the presence of the underlying reality stops being a theory and becomes an experience, and when this happens a great many of the puzzles and perplexities of human existence suddenly start making sense.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that in ancient Greek culture, the philosophical movement that came to embody this approach to the world took its name from a man named Aristocles, whose very broad shoulders gave him the nickname Plato. That’s ironic because Plato was a transitional figure; behind him stood a long line of Orphic and Pythagorean mystics, whose insights he tried to put into rational form, not always successfully; after him came an even longer line of thinkers, the Neoplatonists, who completed the job he started and worked out a coherent philosophy that relates the world of reality to the world of appearance through the lens of human consciousness.

The Platonist answer isn’t limited to Platonism, of course, any more than the Stoic or Epicurean answer is found only in those two Greek philosophical schools. Implicitly or explicitly, it’s present in most religious traditions that grapple with philosophical issues and manage not to fall prey to the easy answers of apocalyptic fantasy. In the language of mainstream Western religion, we can say that there’s a divine reality, and then there’s a created world and created beings—for example, the author and readers of this blog—which depend for their existence on the divine reality, however this is described. Still, that’s far from the only language in which this way of thinking about the world can be framed.

The Epicurean and Stoic approaches to face an imperfect and challenging world, as already discussed, take that world as it is, and propose ways to deal with it. That’s a wholly reasonable approach from within the sort of worldview that those traditions generally embrace. The Platonic approach, by contrast, proposes that the imperfect and challenging world we encounter is only part of the picture, and that certain disciplines of consciousness allow us to take the rest of the picture into account, not as a policy of blind trust, but as an object of personal experience.  As already suggested, it’s difficult to communicate in ordinary language just what that experience has to say about the reality behind such phrases as “divine purpose,” which is why those who pursue such experiences tend to focus on teaching other people how to do it, and let them make their own discoveries as they do the work.

Knowing the rest of the picture, for that matter, doesn’t make the imperfections and challenges go away.  There are many situations in which either an Epicurean or a Stoic tactic is the best bet even from within a Platonic view of the cosmos—it’s a matter of historical fact that much of the best of the Epicurean and Stoic traditions were absorbed into the classical Neoplatonic synthesis for exactly this reason. The difference is simply that to glimpse something of the whole picture, and to pursue those disciplines that bring such glimpses within reach, provide a perspective that makes sense of the texture of everyday experience as it is, without expecting it to act out human fears and fantasies. That approach isn’t for everyone, but it’s an option, and it’s the one that I tend to trust.

And with that, I’ll set aside my archdruid’s hat again and return to the ordinary business of chronicling the decline and fall of industrial civilization.