Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Focusing on short term issues, as I’ve commented more than once in these electronic pages, is a common habit among those concerned about the future of industrial society, and not always a good one. To some extent it’s necessary, since some of the most crucial questions deal with immediate issues like the imminent peaking of world petroleum production. To some extent it’s inescapable, part of the common currency of thought in a society whose movers and shakers think only in terms of the next election or the next quarterly profit statement.

To some extent, too, the grand mythic narratives that dominate the contemporary view of history – the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse – work to foreshorten our view of the future. Both myths insist that the future is predestined – to a heroic destiny among the stars, according to the myth of progress; to cataclysm followed by a return to the good society of the past, according to the myth of apocalypse – and so in either case, all that matters are the short term details, the next wave of technological advance or the next set of rumblings that prove that the great redeeming catastrophe is breathing down our necks. Both these narratives attempt to force history into the Procrustean bed of some form of secular theology; neither one of them, as I’ve argued repeatedly here, offers much in the way of useful guidance for the future taking shape in the circumstances, choices, and missed opportunities of the present.

What does offer useful guidance in our current situation is history. Many other civilizations have overshot their resource base and gone down the same rough slope of decline and fall ahead of us. Set aside the myths that convince us of our own uniqueness, and modern industrial civilization can be seen as just one more example of the type. Ours was made more gargantuan by the combination of luck and cleverness that enabled the industrial revolution to replace sun, wind, water, and muscle with the vast but not limitless supplies of ancient sunlight stored away in the earth’s fossil fuels. Still, the course of decline and fall traces the same trajectory across many different geographical scales; local civilizations restricted to a single bioregion, such as the ancient Maya, rose and fell in much the same way as sprawling empires built on a continental scale such as ancient Rome. It doesn’t require much of a leap to suggest that the same patterns will also shape the fall of a contemporary industrial civilization that includes several continents and dominates, for a brief historical moment, the rest of the planet.

History has plenty of lessons for us, and of course those have been central to the Archdruid Report project all along, but I want to focus on a single issue right now. Partly this is because the issue in question ties into controversies that are getting a lot of airtime in the media just now. Partly, though, it’s because the issue in question points up the importance of taking the long view as we try to make sense of the deindustrial future before us.

It’s fairly common today to think of nations and national cultures as something given, a fixed reality with which historical changes have to deal. Over the short term, this is generally true, though it’s a bit embarrassing for Americans to think this way, given that our nation didn’t exist at all 250 years ago and seized nearly all its current territory from the original owners at gunpoint. Over the long term, though, the combination of culture and territory that defines a national community is a mayfly phenomenon, and analyses that project current national and cultural boundaries very far into the future are likely deluding themselves.

Even in periods of relative stability, populations move, cultures elbow one another out of the way, and nations flow, fuse, and break apart like grease on a hot skillet. A hundred years ago the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were among the major players in world politics – try finding either one on a map today – and Norway had only recently won its independence from Sweden. A hundred years ago the very thought of West Indian or Pakistani immigrant communities in Britain would have drawn blank stares, while a good fraction of the debates over immigration in the United States focused on whether Italians ought to be welcomed or not. Look over the afternoon periods of other civilizations, when people imagined that the current state of affairs would continue forever, and you’ll find similar shifts at work.

When major civilizations disintegrate, though, these changes shift into overdrive. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire offers one of the best documented examples. Outside of Scandinavia, Scotland, and Ireland, practically none of the peoples of Europe stayed put. Before Rome fell, for example, the ancestors of the English lived in Denmark, the ancestors of the French and the northern Italians lived in Germany, the ancestors of the Spanish lived north of the Black Sea, and the ancestors of the Hungarians lived not far from the Gobi Desert. It took most of a thousand years for the rubble to stop bouncing and the new nations of Europe to take shape, and when that finally happened, those nations and cultures had only the most distant connections to what had been there before Rome fell.

German historians of the 19th century coined a useful word for the age of migrations that followed the fall of Rome: Völkerwanderung, “the wandering of peoples.” Drawn by the vacuum left by the implosion of Roman power, and pushed by peoples from the steppes further east driven westward by climate change, whole nations packed their belongings and took to the road. The same thing has happened many other times in the past, though not always on the same vast scale. What makes it important for our present discussion is that we are likely to see a repeat of the phenomenon on an even larger scale in the fairly near future.

The first ripples of this future flood can be seen by anyone who travels by bus through any rural region west of the Mississippi River, as I did a few days ago. Stray very far from the freeways and the tourist towns, and in a great many places you’ll discover that culturally speaking, you’re in Mexico, not the United States. The billboards and window signs are in Spanish, advertising Mexican products, music, and sports teams, and the people on the streets speak Spanish and wear Mexican fashions. It’s popular among Anglophone Americans to think of this sort of thing as purely a phenomenon of the Southwest, but the bus trip I’ve mentioned was in northwestern Oregon. There are some 30 million people of Mexican descent in the US legally, and some very large number – no one seems to agree on what the number is, but 8 million is the lowest figure I’ve heard anyone talking about – who are here illegally. As the migration continues, a very large portion of what is now the United States is becoming something else.

There’s been a great deal of angry rhetoric from all sides of the current debate about immigration from Mexico, of course, but very little of it deals with one of the primary driving forces behind it – the failure of the American settlement of the West. The strategies that changed the eastern third of the country from frontier to the heartland of the United States didn’t work anything like as well west of the Mississippi. Today the cities, towns, and farms that once spread across the Great Plains in an unbroken carpet are falling apart as their economic basis crumbles and their residents move away, while most of the mountain and basin regions further west survive on tourist dollars, retirement income, or specialized cash crops for distant markets – none of them viable economic bases once cheap energy becomes a thing of the past. Like the Mongol conquest of Russia or the Arab conquest of Spain, the American conquest of the West is proving to be a temporary phenomenon, and as the wave of American settlement recedes, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest society with the population and cultural vitality to take its place.

This isn’t an issue unique to America. The same thing is happening right now in Siberia, where Chinese immigrants are streaming across a long and inadequately guarded border and making the Russian settlement of northern Asia look more and more like a passing historical phase. It’s a very common phenomenon when the reach of a powerful nation turns out to exceed its grasp. In a showdown between military power and demography, demography generally wins.

Once again, though, such changes shift into overdrive when civilizations break down. In an age of disintegration, when the political and military power that backs up America’s borders will most likely come unraveled in short order and climate shifts could all too easily hand tens of millions of people in Latin America a choice between migration or starvation, völkerwanderung once again becomes probable. Map the Roman model onto the present and it’s quite conceivable that by the year 2500 or so, the people living in the area of today’s Iowa and Wisconsin might trace their origins to a migration from Brazil, while west of the Mississippi, languages descended from English might only be spoken in a few enclaves in the Pacific Northwest.

Yet history also shows that where maritime technology permits, völkerwanderung can just as easly cross oceans. From the Sea Peoples who ravaged the eastern Mediterranean world around 1300 BCE to the Vikings of the early Middle Ages who left their mark on lands as distant as Greenland, Russia, and Sicily, plenty of migrant peoples have taken to the sea. As the petroleum age winds down, it will leave a great many nations with large populations, limited natural resources, and a strong maritime tradition, with few options other than mass migration by sea. Japan is likely to be the poster child here, though Indonesia is a close second, as Australia is likely to find out the hard way over the next century or so.

Some of these changes are already well under way. Others could very easily begin as soon as the next round of crises hit, especially if the crises include a temporary or permanent implosion of American military power. All of them need to be kept in mind in planning for the future, since options that seem plausible in an age of cultural and national stability may take on a very different character in an age of migrations, and the transmission of knowledge across cultural boundaries becomes a much more important task when those boundaries begin to move – as they will certainly move once the deindustrial age begins.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Adam's Story: Nanmin Voyages

This narrative, the second part of “Adam’s Story,” continues using the tools of fiction to explore the five themes introduced in my Archdruid Report post “Glimpsing the Deindustrial Future.” As with the first installment of “Adam’s Story,” the setting is the rural Pacific Northwest during the second half of this century.


It took Adam most of three days to walk from Learyville to the coast highway, the main route through that part of the state and the nearest thing he’d had to a goal when he left home for the last time. The first day, leaving as late as he did, he only walked an hour or so before night closed in and he found a sleeping place under the stars. The second day brought him down out of the hills into the Meeker River valley, where the soil was good enough to make farms profitable and an old rail line ran back inland where the markets were. A train was growling its way east as he came down to the valley floor, though it wasn’t much like the trains in the children’s books he remembered; some local mechanic had reworked two trucks and most of a dozen trailers to run on rails, and the wind coming past the rails brought the fried-food smell of biodiesel with it.

Toward late afternoon he stopped at a farm just off the road and asked the farmer if he could cut firewood for him in exchange for a place to sleep in the barn. The farmer, a stocky man with hair the color of gunmetal and overalls that had seen many better days, looked him up and down and asked, “You can chop wood with one hand?” Adam grinned and said, “You’d be surprised what I can do with one hand.” The farmer just nodded, and took him in back of the farmhouse, where an old stump and a cruiser ax showed plenty of signs of use.

Adam spent the next few hours turning big pieces of wood into small ones – nothing new, he’d done the same chore back home for years, and it just took more cleverness to do it well after the accident messed up his right arm. When the farmer came back, he assessed the pile of firewood Adam had cut, nodded again and called him in to supper with the farmhands. He spent the night in a spare bed, and left the next morning with a grand breakfast inside him. As he said his goodbyes and shouldered his pack, the farmer’s wife handed him a pair of sandwiches neatly wrapped in floursacking, and waved aside his thanks, saying, “God bless you, just do something good for somebody who needs it.”

That was much on Adam’s mind as he walked west that day, with the rail line on one side and the river winding back and forth on the other. Tang of salt in the wind spoke of the sea, and old pilings rose from the water, last trace of sawmills and canneries that swung through their own trajectories of boom and bust long before anyone realized the society they served was on the same track. Farms became sparse, and stopped altogether just before the river opened into tidal marsh. The railway ended at a crumpled mess of timber that had been a bridge a long time back, but the road ran on, and a battered sign told him the highway was only a dozen miles further.

Those dozen miles took him away from the river, up into low sandy hills covered with shore pine that huddled down against the sea winds. The whole countryside looked deserted, but as he followed the road he noticed signs of movement off in the woods to either side. Birds fluttered up from among the trees, startled; now and then he saw what might have been a human shape slipping between the trees; once, as he topped a rise in the road, he saw someone half a mile or so in front of him, who saw him at the same moment and hurried out of sight under the pines.

Nanmin, Adam thought. He’d heard about them, back when Learyville still had the odd visitor or two. He made sure his father’s pistol was handy in his coat pocket, and kept walking.

He reached the coast highway as the sun was sinking into offshore fog. A cluster of buildings had been at the intersection once – a gas station, a cafe, and a shop selling tourist gewgaws, all brandishing gaudy signs – but the first two had fallen down and only the last still stood. He paused, decided that the shop would make a better place for the night than some hollow under the trees, and he still had both sandwiches, too. He went to where the door had been, peered into the shadows inside, stepped through.

Movement to one side, flash of metal in the dim light: startled, he scrambled away from it, got the rusting wreck of an old shelf between him and whatever it was. As his eyes adjusted to the light he found himself facing a young woman, Asian by her features, crouched against the other wall of the little shop with a big knife in her hand. Despite the weapon, she looked as frightened as he felt. Next to her lay another woman, a little older, slumped on the floor on a ragged blanket. The sick sweet smell of infection hung in the air.

“Hey,” Adam said, raising his good hand in what he hoped was a nonthreatening gesture. “You don’t need to do that. I’m just traveling – I’m not with the government or anything.”

The woman did not move at all. Eyes narrowed, she watched him, kept the knife between them.

“Do you know any English?” he tried.

After a long moment: “Yes.”

He wanted more than anything else just then to bargain his way to the door and sprint out into the evening, but a memory of sandwiches and the words of the farmer’s wife stood in the way. “Your friend doesn’t look so good,” he said a moment later, then: “Look, I’ve got medicine with me that might help. I can share some of it.”

A terrible uncertainty showed in her eyes. After what seemed like a long time, she moved warily to one side and lowered the knife a little. “My sister,” she said.

He was kneeling beside the woman and pulling his pack off his back before it occurred to him that the other one might stab him once his back was turned. No help for that now. He made himself finish the motion, fished around in the pack for the bottle of tincture old Carol Price had given him, brewed from herbs and raw alcohol; he’d seen it save lives more than once. He set the bottle on the concrete floor, turned to the sick woman, unwrapped the stained cloth bandages around one lower leg, drew in a sudden sharp breath when he saw what was underneath.

“Very bad,” the other said – a statement, not a question.

“Yes.” A ragged gash ran half the length of the lower leg, with pale puffy flesh and a reek of infection around it. Telltale red streaks of blood poisoning ran up the leg from there. Adam took the woman’s wrist and checked her pulse – hurried, shallow, uneven – then touched her forehead, felt fever burning hot under the skin. He sloshed some of the tincture onto the gash, then said, “Do you think we can boil some water?”

“I have no pan, no water.”

“I’ve got both. If there’s dry wood...”

“Yes.” What was left of a wooden shelf, kicked to bits and split up with her knife, made a small bright blaze that got water boiling promptly enough. A souvenir towel from the back of the shop, dipped in boiling water and then cooled just enough not to burn, gave him what he needed to clean the wound, and two more made a new bandage once he’d sloshed more tincture on it. The younger woman got some cool water down the sick one’s throat, with a few drops of the tincture in it just in case. Still, the fever stayed and so did the red streaks.

The younger woman put a few more bits of wood on the little fire, then seemed to slump into herself, as if the effort had burnt up the last energy she had. Still remembering the farmer’s wife, Adam asked, “Do you want a sandwich? I’ve got two.”

That got him a startled starved look that made him wonder how long it had been since she’d last had a meal. “Please,” she said, and took the sandwich, but waited until he took the other before starting to eat. The firelight made her face hard to read; she was looking at him, but what thoughts moved behind the eyes he had no idea.

He checked the older woman once he’d finished his sandwich – pulse the same, fever maybe a little worse – then sat down by the fire again. A long silence passed, then: “You are traveling.” The words were a question, though it took Adam a moment to figure that out. Guessing at the limits of her English, he tried to tell her a little about Learyville and why he’d left it to the bears and the ghosts. The fire burnt low as he talked. Afterwards, she fed a few more bits of wood to the flames, let another silence pass, and then started talking about herself.

Her name was Haruko, Sumigawa Haruko, and her older sister was named Fumiko. They’d both been born in Osaka, went to good schools, and then got evacuated to the island of Shikoku when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, which was why they survived when the war went briefly and disastrously nuclear and Osaka took a Chinese warhead. They’d learned to work the rice fields, since that was the only work to be had in a country spiralling down toward bare subsistence. Still, even after the huge losses from the war, Japan still had far more people than its farmland would support, and eventually they got a polite letter from the government telling them their food rations would be discontinued in the new year and they should make other arrangements.

So they’d found a ship that was being fitted out for nanmin, refugees, and was still taking passengers, bartered their remaining ration coupons for rice and a few other foodstuffs for the voyage, helped sew makeshift sails and scrounge enough fuel to get the ship out of harbor and power the final rush onto the beach, and put themselves in the hands of the winds and currents. The voyage had been lucky; they’d had rain enough to keep the water tanks from running dry, good strong winds, and they hadn’t run out of food until close to the end.

Still, when one of the ship’s makeshift ladders broke under Fumiko and slashed her leg open, they had no medicine to treat the wound, and infection set in. She’d been delirious when the ship plowed up onto the beach, and had to be hauled down the ropes by some of the others, who carried Fumiko up to the old shop and left her and Haruko to fend for themselves. With so little to go around and so many dangers to face, the ones who might survive dared not burden themselves trying to help those who certainly would not; it was as simple as that.

A sudden harsh noise as Fumiko started breathing again broke into the narrative. It was only then that Adam realized she had stopped breathing maybe a minute before. He checked her pulse and fever again, listened to the telltale rhythm as her breathing slowed gradually to silence and then started up noisily, only to slow once again. He knew well enough what that meant, and a glance across the fire to Haruko’s face told him that she recognized the sign as well.

“I hoped – ” Haruko began but her voice broke. Then: “I will pray to Amida.” She moved to sit next to Fumiko’s head, began murmuring a quiet repeated prayer: namu Amida butsu. Only later, as he woke from a doze, did Adam realize that she’d left her knife lying on the floor near the fire.

Fumiko died just as the first traces of morning came filtering in through what was left of the shop windows. Adam gathered from what Haruko said that cremation was the Japanese custom, but that wasn’t an option – “Too much wet in all the wood,” Haruko said – and his folding camp shovel proved sturdy enough to dig a serviceable grave in the sandy soil behind the shop. Afterwards, Adam filled his pack again and glanced at Haruko, wondering how to ask the question he wanted to ask.

She forestalled him. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

Something too faint and fragile to be called a smile showed on her face. “That is a good place, I think.” That was a question, too, but the only answer Adam could think of was to nod and indicate the door with a gesture: shall we?

Outside the sun struggled up out of fog. The coast highway headed off in two directions. “South, I think,” Adam said. “North there’s not much but wilderness for quite a ways.” Haruko nodded, as though that settled it, and they started south on the cracked but serviceable blacktop.

They’d gone no more than a hundred yards when the fog lifted to westward, swirling and tearing open as the sea wind clawed at it. From the highway the land sloped toward the beach down below, and there, with its bow driven up onto the sand, was the vast black shape of Haruko’s ship. Adam had expected a fishing trawler or the like, certainly not a huge container vessel the size of a small town. Nor had he expected to see another shape like it in the middle distance making purposefully in toward the shore.

“Japan has many people,” said Haruko behind him, “and many ships. Not much food. Each year, more will come.”

Adam stood there for a long moment, watching the future approach, until the fog rolled back in and he and Haruko began walking south again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Depopulation Explosion?

The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike. The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown, but neither had nor would receive any further care...

With this brilliant image, Richard Jefferies began the harrowing prologue to his 1885 novel After London, or Wild England, one of the first works in the modern genre of apocalypse fiction. In Jefferies’ backstory, some unremembered catastrophe erased nearly the entire population of Britain, leaving a few survivors to rebuild a medieval society amid the ruins. Jefferies is almost forgotten today but his novel was influential in its time; echoes of After London can be found straight through the next century of science fiction, showing up in writers as different as H.G. Wells and Edgar Pangborn, and Jefferies’ vision of a depopulated world in which the remains of civilization crumbled beneath spreading greenery hit a chord in the modern imagination.

It’s a vision that has seen quite a bit of play in recent discussions about the future of industrial society, especially among those who like to frame those in terms of one apocalyptic narrative or another. In some circles these days, global depopulation in the near future is treated as a given, and the only point of debate seems to be what mechanism will tip six billion superfluous lives into history’s dumpster. A certain amount of millennarian machismo seems to creep into these debates, as though believing in a catastrophe more dire and more imminent than anyone else’s is a sign of toughness. All this has a good deal to say about the way social narratives are shaped, but arguably much less about the shape of the future ahead of us.

Thus, for example, I was contacted not long ago by a reader of The Archdruid Report who announced he’d come up with a scenario that involved the immiment extermination of 95% of the world’s population in a matter of weeks. Did I want to read more? Well, no, in fact, I didn’t. I’m old enough to remember when Comet Kohoutek was supposed to cause global devastation and Anwar Sadat was widely identified as the Antichrist, and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s very easy to come up with a worst case scenario and back it up with a bunch of cherrypicked factoids. Another thing I’ve learned is that this sort of exercise is probably the least effective way there is of guessing the shape of the future. When such predictions leap into the pool of time, the reliable result is a thundering bellyflop.

Still, it’s important not to jump to the conclusion that this means current global population levels are sustainable. What William Catton, in his classic work Overshoot, called “ghost acreage” – the vast boost to the means of subsistence that comes from the unsustainable use of fossil fuels in growing, storing, and distributing food – has allowed the world’s human population in the last few centuries to balloon to between three and four times what the earth can support over the long term. As the industrial age winds down, the surpluses of food and other resources and the infrastructure of public health that made this expansion possible will wind down as well, with predictable impacts on the size of the human population.

So far, this supports the catastrophist model, but there’s a catch. The winding down of the industrial age isn’t a fast process. The peak of worldwide conventional oil production may well have already happened – the best figures I’ve seen show that production rates reached in the fall of 2005 have not been equalled since – and the overall peak, including nonconventional sources such as tar sands and natural gas liquids, probably isn’t far away. What too few people seem to have noticed, though, is that the Hubbert curve is shaped like a bell, not like a sawtooth.

That bell-shaped profile means, among other things, that about as much oil will be pumped out of the ground on the downside half of the curve as was pumped on the upside. It also means that production rates along the downside will be roughly commensurable with production rates at points on the upside the same distance from the peak. If peak production comes in 2010, in other words, the amount of oil produced in 2030 will likely not be far from what was produced in 1990; production in 2060 will be somewhere near production in 1960, and production in 2100 will be around production in 1920. Even after the peak comes and goes, in other words, there will still be a great deal of oil in circulation for many years to come. The same will likely be true of most other energy resources, and of energy as a whole.

This same lesson could have been learned from the growth of nonconventional oil sources like the Alberta tar sands, and the reopening of hundreds of formerly uneconomical stripper wells in pumped-out oil provinces like Pennsylvania. As oil production falters, market forces and political pressures alike guarantee that every possible replacement will be brought online. Right now, attempts to increase production are struggling to keep up with slumping yields at existing fields, and it’s a struggle that will only get harder as more fields reach the downside of their own Hubbert curves. Still, even though new fields and alternative sources can’t make up for the exhaustion of supergiant fields like Ghawar and Cantarell, they can stretch out the process much further than the raw figures on production declines from existing fields might suggest.

Does this mean peak oil is nothing to worry about? Not at all. The fact that the “ghost acreage” that supports our huge global population is going away gradually, rather than all at once, does not change the fact that it’s going away. Historically speaking, both a slow decline and a fast collapse produce population loss; the difference is that in a slow decline, depopulation tends to be a much more complex process, subject to major regional and temporal variations.

It actually doesn’t take that much to change an expanding population into a contracting one. Modest changes in birth and death rates will do the trick, and such changes are predictable consequences of the twilight of the industrial age. We’ve already had a preview in the former Soviet Union, where the implosion of Communism launched a classic cycle of catabolic collapse in the 1990s followed by partial recovery in this decade. Statistics I’ve seen put live births in Russia around 8 per thousand annually, and deaths around 14 per thousand; that alone is predicted to reduce the Russian population to half its present size by midcentury.

The factors that push population contraction in hard times are familiar enough to demographers. Malnutrition is a major factor; so are epidemic disease and child mortality driven by failing public health; so are social factors such as alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and suicide, driven by the psychological impacts of life in a failing society. There’s at least one additional factor to keep in mind, though, and the best way to explain it is to introduce a guest who will be appearing in this blog tolerably often in the future.

‘Abd-er-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami – ibn Khaldun for short – was a jurist, politician, and Sufi mystic who lived from 1332 to 1406. He was also one of the first known historians to make a serious attempt to get under the hood of history and figure out what makes it go. His major work, the Muqaddimah (Introduction to History), was a massive treatise – three thick volumes in English translation – setting out the patterns he saw at work behind historical events, and his conclusions hold up remarkably well in the light of history since his time.

He spent much of his life in northwestern Africa, where the contrast between the ruins of Roman settlement and the deserts of his own time was hard to miss, and one of the many questions he set out to answer was why that happened. It’s popular nowadays to blame it on deforestation and the like, but ibn Khaldun saw a different cause at work – infrastructure failure caused by political dysfunction. In the examples he surveyed, agricultural societies were conquered by new ruling classes of nomad origin, who saw their subjects as cash cows but failed to realize that cows have to be fed. Revenues needed to maintain vital infrastructure were thus diverted into unproductive uses, sending societies into a downward spiral of economic collapse and depopulation from which they rarely recovered.

In the the twilight of the industrial age, ibn Khaldun’s insight is likely to be worth close attention. There aren’t a lot of nomads at the edges of today’s civilizations, but too many members of the political class in the modern world have no more sense of the importance of infrastructure to survival than the nomad rulers ibn Khaldun critiques, and the malign neglect so often visited on infrastructure in the US and elsewhere may be a foretaste of worse to come. Since a significant amount of North American infrastructure is locally managed and maintained, this represents a factor that could be powerfully shaped by community action on the local level.

Like every other aspect of our contemporary predicament, finally, these forces will also be shaped by geographic factors. Communities that are economically viable in a global economy awash in cheap fossil fuel energy, in many cases, are not places that will be economically viable in the deindustrial future. This cuts both ways. Sprawling Sun Belt cities with little water and no potential for agriculture will slowly shrivel and die as the energy that keeps them going sputters and goes out, and tourist communities across the continent will pop like bubbles and become ghost towns once travel becomes a luxury, while Rust Belt towns struggling for bare survival today will likely find a new lease on life when adequate rain, workable soil, and access to waterborne transport become the keys to prosperity, as they were in the 18th century.

One question not yet settled, though, is how many of the communities in areas that might prosper in the deindustrial age will be inhabited by descendants of the people who now live in those parts of North America, and how many will be populated by way of the second theme to be discussed in this series of essays – the theme of migration. We’ll turn to this theme in next week’s post.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Is History on Anyone's Side?

I’d meant this week’s Archdruid Report to go sailing straight ahead along the course charted out two weeks ago, with a discussion of the role that population contraction is likely to play as the industrial age winds down into the deindustrial future. Still, just as the guys on the Argo got used to Jason or Hercules or somebody pointing off to starboard and saying, “Hey, that island looks worth checking out,” those of my readers who have followed this particular voyage in search of the future have probably learned to expect sudden swerves into unexpected territory.

This particular swerve was inspired in part by the last paragraph of a blogpost by Sharon Astyk, whose writings on the crisis of the industrial world are among the best out there. The post, “Depletion, racism, and paving the road to hell,” focuses on a side of peak oil very few people like to talk about – the pervasive themes of race and class that run through so many of its current narratives, offering starring roles in dramas of survival only to middle-class whites, while relegating the poor and nonwhite to walk-on roles as victims in mass graves or members of the ubiquitous rampaging mobs of survivalist fantasy. While I have my disagreements with some of her stances, it’s a good post, and it points out issues that have to be addressed if the ideas discussed in this forum are ever to be more than the mental games of a privileged class with no better use for its time.

But then there’s the last paragraph, and the passage that brought me to a dead stop: “[T]he one bright spot in this future is that peak oil and climate change represent the greatest hope for reallocation of wealth and justice in the world.”

That’s an astonishing statement, and the fact that similar statements can be heard all over the peak oil community is one of the more astonishing things about it.

After all, Astyk is not exactly the only person who thinks that the crisis of industrial society is “the greatest hope” for social change. She may not be pleased to hear that the same hope guides Nick Griffin, current head of the British National Party. The BNP, for those who don’t keep tabs on the far end of British politics, is an extremist party of the far right that advocates, among other things, “repatriating” nonwhite people from Britain to their (or their great-great-great-grandparents’) country of origin. It would be hard to find a wider political gap in today’s world than the one between Griffin and Astyk, and yet both think that peak oil is on their side.

They’re not alone in that belief, either. Find a political or social movement far from the mainstream these days and odds are you’ll find it proclaiming that peak oil will put the future they desire into their waiting hands. Marxists waiting for proletarian revolution, Klansmen waiting for the South to rise again, neoprimitivists waiting for civilization to go away so they can lead the hunting and gathering lifestyle of their dreams, all pin their hopes for the future on peak oil. If there are still Distributivists out there – I hope there are; Distributivism always seemed more humane to me than a good many of the notions that elbowed it aside in the political free-for-all of the 1930s – I would not be surprised in the least to hear them claim that peak oil will inevitably bring Chesterton’s dream to pass. Not since Doctor Fox’s Genuine Arkansas Snake Oil stopped being sold on the carnival circuit, I suspect, has one remedy been applied to so many different diagnoses.

This invites satire, but there are patterns at work that deserve close and serious attention instead. Most of the grand mythic narratives that compete for attention in today’s collective imagination claim that history has a direction and a goal. Some, like the mythology of progress I’ve tried to anatomize before, take some set of current trends and project them out indefinitely in the direction of Utopia. Others take some set of current trends, define their necessary endpoint as hell on earth, and use that identification to rally opposition against them. Yet there’s at least one more class of narrative, one that sees the goal of history as something hidden in the undergrowth of events, known only to the few just now, but destined for sudden revelation.

Most of the narratives of this third class derive in one way or another from a single source – the unique historical experience of the Jewish people. Like the other minor kingdoms of the ancient Near East, the Jews saw themselves as sharers in a covenant with a tribal god, who gave them his protection in exchange for their faith and offerings. Like their neighbors, they struggled to square that faith with the brutal realities of the international politics of their time. After a brief heyday under David and Solomon, the history of ancient Israel was a story of decline ending in the catastrophe of deportation to Babylon.

The conquest of Babylon less than a century later by the Persian Empire, though, sent the story spinning in a new direction. Under Persian rule the Jews were permitted to return home, restore a national community and rebuild their temple. This astonishing redemption at a time when all reasonable hope had faded had a profound impact on Jewish religion and culture, and became the template against which Jewish history before and afte found a measure. To Jewish theologians then and ever since, the restoration of the Temple showed that the god of Israel had not failed his people even when all the facts seemed to point the other way. The tenacious faith this conviction bred played a crucial role in allowing the Jews to survive the much greater catastrophes that lay in wait as history unfolded.

Yet the same faith found other believers as core ideas of Judaism got taken up and reworked by the younger religions of Christianity and Islam, and spread in these new forms across the face of the planet. The same vision of a divine plan within contemporary adversities that would be made plain in some future act of redemption became common currency for human hopes across the world. When medieval Welsh rebels invoked the dream of King Arthur come back from Avalon to drive the English invader back into the sea, or 17th century Chinese secret societies claimed that the Mandate of Heaven still rested with the hidden heirs of the Ming dynasty, those claims echoed with the same hope of national redemption that kept their Jewish contemporaries going through their own bitter troubles.

Later still, as religion gave way to less overtly mythic ideologies in the collective imagination of much of humankind, the same story spun out into a galaxy of versions backing any political or social movement you care to name. Very few narratives can undergo that sort of diffusion without being debased into a cliché, or even a mental automatism, and the idea that history must be on the side of whatever ideology one happens to support has become so common these days that it approximates the latter.

A more specific problem, though, is that if peak oil is on anyone’s side, it’s not likely to be that of the liberal causes for which Astyk hopes to recruit it. Most of the great achievements of the liberal tradition have taken place in times of economic expansion – consider the abolition of the slave trade in the prosperous early Victorian era, for example, or the civil rights movement in America in the boomtime 1950s. Times of economic contraction, by contrast, tend to foster reactionary politics – consider the spread of totalitarian regimes across Europe in the decade that followed the stock market crash of 1929. Those tendencies are no more absolute than anything else in history, but they do exist.

The causes driving this pattern are doubtless complex, but one core factor can be teased out of Astyk’s own analysis. When the economic pie is growing larger, nobody has to lose part of their share in order for those unfairly deprived to get more. When the pie is static, though, a gain for anyone is a loss for somebody else, and when the pie is actually shrinking, the division of slices can all too easily degenerate into a mad scramble for scraps and crumbs. Abstract concepts of equity become hard to keep in sight when it’s your own children who risk going hungry. For many middle class people who had been secure from want, the Great Depression brought this experience, and reactionary regimes that promised them security prospered accordingly.

I don’t think it’s necessary to be a “doomer,” whatever exactly that label means, to think that as the industrial world begins sliding down the far side of Hubbert’s peak, the pie of today’s industrial economy will shrink a great deal, and a lot of people who are comfortable today will find themselves in the same situation their grandparents faced in the years after 1929. I also don’t think it’s necessary to be a “doomer” to notice that while most parties on the left are avoiding the implications of peak oil the way a ten-year-old boy tries to wriggle away from an elderly aunt’s kiss, the BNP and other parties of the far right are already hard at work positioning themselves to take advantage of post-peak realities.

Thus if Astyk means simply that liberals might be able to respond to the social impacts of peak oil and climate change, and in the process regain some of the ground they’ve lost in recent decades, she may be right. They’ll have to work overtime, both to counter the advantages held by reactionaries and to make up for time already lost, but the thing has been done successfully before – the New Deal comes to mind. On the other hand, if she’s claiming that the wrenching social problems set in motion by these two factors will necessarily favor her agenda, she’s likely misleading herself, and she may be doing the causes she supports a significant disservice.

More generally, it may be worth suggesting that those who claim that peak oil is a door to their favorite Utopia are engaged in the same unproductive act. As the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end, things will change; more likely than not they will change drastically, and for most people, many of those changes will be for the worse. I’ve argued here and elsewhere that the scope of those changes can best be understood by comparing them to the decline and fall of civilizations in the past. One lesson that can be learned from the past, though, is that waiting for catastrophe to accomplish your goals for you is one of history’s classic losing bets.

If anything but a slow decline into confusion and forgetfulness is to take form within the shell of today’s industrial civilization, it will have to be built brick by brick and board by board, and its resemblance to Utopia will be tempered by the sharp realities of resource limits and a biosphere in disarray. History chooses her own course, and those who insist that history is necessarily on their side are likely to find out the hard way that if she helps anyone at all – which she does not always do – it is most often those who help themselves.