Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Twelfth Hour

One of the things I’ve noted repeatedly since The Archdruid Report first began attracting a significant number of comments is the way that certain stories maintain a deathgrip on our collective imagination of the future. I’ve written at length in previous posts here about two of those stories, the story of progress and the story of survivalism. Look through the last decade or so of discussion about Peak Oil, or for that matter any other manifestation of the predicament of industrial civilization, and you’ll find the climactic scenes of both stories – the basement entrepreneur laboring away at the technological fix that will save us all, on the one hand, and the plucky band of survivors blasting away with assault rifles at savage, starving, mindless mobs, on the other – circling like broken records.

I’ve come to think that much of the mutual incomprehension that strangles communication among different sides of the Peak Oil scene, and has played an important part in keeping it fragmented and marginalized, comes from the way that so many people in that scene have their ears so full of one or another of these stories that they can’t hear anything else. Still, these two aren’t the only stories that have had this kind of effect on the debate, and I’d like to talk a little bit about one of the others in this week’s post. The story in question is at least as old as the other two, and it has, if anything, even more pervasive a presence in the rhetoric that shapes our collective thinking about the future. Call it the story of the eleventh hour.

You know that story inside and out already. It’s the one in which the world is on the brink of disaster, for some simple and readily defined reason that could be solved if people were only willing to do what was necessary. Things get worse, and worse, and worse, until at the last possible moment before disaster strikes – at the eleventh hour, to use the constantly repeated phrase – people leap up from their sofas and do whatever it is that they have to do to save the world. A few cautionary words about being more proactive next time rounds off the story, and then they all live happily ever after.

It’s a whacking good yarn, of course, which accounts for much of its popularity – everyone likes a taut suspenseful tale – and, like the other narratives we use these days to make sense of the future, it can be applied to almost any situation you care to name. It’s also a very politically useful story, which accounts for the other half of its popularity. If you can convince people that the world really is on the brink of disaster, it’s a good deal easier to stampede them into action, and if you can present them with a plan of action you claim will save the world, people may not look at the details too closely before they embrace it as their one hope of salvation. This can be exceedingly useful, particularly if you have an agenda your audience might not support if they know they have another choice.

The last three hundred years or so of North American cultural politics are full of individuals and movements who discovered these advantages in the story of the eleventh hour. One of the most relevant is also one of the earliest. I don’t know if any of my readers were introduced in college literature classes, as I was, to Jonathan Edwards’ harrowing 1741 sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Like so many preachers before and since, Edwards faced the not inconsiderable challenge of convincing human beings to live like angels, and made the often repeated discovery that one of the best ways to do it was to scare the stuffing out of them. The result is one of the most spectacular invocations of the eleventh hour in all of literature. Edwards bent all his talents to the task of convincing his listeners that as they sat their in their pews, right then and there, the ground might suddenly open up beneath them and drop them screaming and flailing into the jaws of eternal damnation.

It was a great success at the time. Like so many preachers before and since, though, Edwards discovered the homely moral of the story of the boy who cried wolf: you can only scare the stuffing out of people in the same way so many times before the impact wears off, and your listeners become irritated or, worse yet, bored. Few things in popular culture have less cachet than last year’s imminent disasters.

This is problematic for the Jonathan Edwardses of the world, who tend to be one-trick ponies, with careers founded on a single catastrophe and a solution to match. It can be even more problematic for the rest of us, though, because it does sometimes happen that one or more of the Jonathan Edwardses of an age proclaim a disaster that actually is in the offing – even a broken clock is right twice a day – and the story of the boy who cried wolf has two additional morals not often remembered: first, the wolves were real; second, they ended up eating the sheep.

That’s the hidden downside of the story of the eleventh hour. When you’ve told the same story often enough, people become used to the fact that you’ll be back again shortly with another catastrophe du jour, and another one after that, and so on. They stop being scared and become irritated or, worse yet, bored. At that point it doesn’t matter how many more changes you ring on the story or how colorfully you describe this year’s imminent disaster, because they’ve learned to recognize the narrative as narrative – and, not uncommonly, they’ve learned to glimpse whatever agenda lies behind the story and motivates the people who tell it.

The awkward conversation about Peak Oil in today’s industrial societies, I’m convinced, cannot be understood at all unless the spreading effect of these paired recognitions is taken into account. For decades now our collective discourse has been filled to overflowing with competing renditions of the story of the eleventh hour, from every imaginable point on the political and cultural spectrum. Whether it’s the missile gap or the ozone layer, fiat currencies or emerging viruses, immigration policy or trade deficits or the antics of whatever set of clowns is piling into or out of the executive branch this season, somebody or other is presenting it as a source of imminent disaster from which, at the eleventh hour, their proposals can save us.

This is the environment into which the Peak Oil movement emerged when it left its larval stage on a handful of internet mailing lists and started to try to warn the world that the age of cheap abundant energy is about to come to an end. In the language of theater, they found themselves playing to a very unsympathetic house. Mind you, it didn’t help that a significant number of people in the Peak Oil community proceeded to pack their message into the familiar framework of the story of the eleventh hour, complete in many cases with unstated political agendas that are not unfamiliar to those of us who have watched the last thirty years’ worth of imminent disasters come and go.

The irony here, and it’s as rich as it is bitter, is that this is one of the cases where the crisis is real. Depending on how you measure it – with or without natural gas liquids, oil-sands products, and other marginal sources of quasipetroleum fuel – world oil production peaked in 2005 or 2006 and, despite record prices and massive drilling programs in the Middle East and elsewhere, has been slipping down the far side of Hubbert’s peak ever since. Dozens of countries in the nonindustrial world are already struggling with desperate shortages of petroleum products, while the industrial world’s attempts to stave off trouble by pouring its food supply into its gas tanks via ethanol and biodiesel have succeeded mostly in launching food prices on a stratospheric trajectory from which they show no signs of returning any time soon.

Does this mean that we’re finally, for real, at the eleventh hour? That’s the richest and most bitter irony of all. As Robert Hirsch and his colleagues pointed out not long ago in a crucial study, the only way to respond effectively to Peak Oil on a national scale, and stave off massive economic and social disruptions, is to start preparations twenty years before the arrival of peak petroleum production. The eleventh hour, in other words, came and went in 1986, and no amount of pressure, protest, or wishful thinking can make up for the opportunity that was missed then. Listen carefully today and you can hear the sound of the clock tolling twelve, reminding us that the eleventh hour is gone for good.

The problem with this realization, of course, is that the story of the twelfth hour doesn’t make good melodrama. When you’re standing in the train station watching the train you meant to catch rattling out of sight around a distant curve miles down the track, it’s hard to capture the excitement of the desperate pelting run through the station that gets you onto the train just as it starts rolling toward the destination you hoped to reach. Equally, the story of the twelfth hour isn’t all that useful as a tool of political manipulation, since the silence of an empty train station makes it rather too easy to stop and think about whether the destination you hoped to reach was actually someplace you wanted to go.

While it may not make good melodrama or effective politics, though, I’ve come to think that one of the things we most need just now, in the Peak Oil scene and in modern industrial civilization as a whole, is that time of reflection in the silence that follows when the eleventh hour has come and gone, and the last hope of avoiding the consequences of our actions has vanished down the track into the land of might-have-beens. It’s been pointed out more than once that the process of coming to terms with Peak Oil has more than a little in common with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross injected into our cultural dialogue and Ben Vereen made famous in Bob Fosse’s extraordinary movie All That Jazz. It’s been noticed much less often that the final stage of the process has a gift to offer, and the name of the gift is wisdom – something the world arguably needs a good deal more than it needs another round of comforting melodrama, or another set of political agendas disguising themselves as solutions to yet another catastrophe du jour.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Adam's Story: Uncharted Waters

This narrative is the final part of an exploration of the five themes from my Archdruid Report post “Glimpsing the Deindustrial Future” using the toolkit of narrative fiction. As with the rest of “Adam’s Story,” the setting is the coastal Pacific Northwest sometime during the second half of this century, after the political disintegration of the United States and the end of the global industrial system.


They’d been at Tillicum River most of a month before Adam and Haruko knew for certain that their future lay there, though Adam began to guess the shape of it after the first week or so. Growing up as the last child left in a dying town, he’d studied almost from infancy the art of listening to the words behind the words people spoke, all the things adults didn’t want a child to know about that the child needed to know. Through the long days he spent working in Earl Tigard’s garden, patching his roof, and doing a hundred other neglected chores, he watched the townsfolk watch him, listened to their voices as wariness gave way to familiarity in their greetings and small talk, felt the label “outsider” gradually dropping off him as though the sweat that rolled down his face and back as he put in onions or dug up dandelion roots for coffee made it come unstuck. Even so, when certainty arrived it caught him by surprise.

That day he and Earl helped finish the new fence around the goat pasture the Tigards shared with their five closest neighbors: hard work even by Adam’s standards, and it didn’t help that the goats did their level best all day to extract themselves from the barn and get underfoot, and succeeded more than once. The dinner bell was even more welcome than usual, and afterwards Earl broke out bottled beer from the cellar – local, of course, but the Tillicum River brewery had more than a local market in the days before things started falling apart, and there was talk of selling it to the trading ships that were starting to poke their way up and down the coast again.

Halfway through the first glass, someone knocked at the door. When Earl went to answer it, it turned out to be four people, one familiar face among them: the portly policeman Adam remembered from the town gate. “You’ve met Chuck Babcock,” Earl said, making introductions, “our police chief. This is Cathy Weiss, our mayor.” A woman with iron-colored hair in a bun and the angular face and quick motions of a bird shook Adam’s hand, then Haruko’s. “Juliet Rasmussen, city clerk, and Fred Baird from the city council.” Juliet was plump and smiling, Fred lean and reserved. They found chairs around the living room, took beers from Earl.

“Well,” said the mayor. “You probably know that we’ve had trouble now and then with people from outside, but you probably also know that about half the people who live here came from somewhere else. Earl and Anne have spoken well of both of you.”

“They’re not the only ones,” said Chuck. “You two work hard, you stay out of trouble, and – ” A nod to Haruko. “ – the folks at the Buddhist church ain’t exactly unhappy to have somebody show up and start helping out, just like that.” Haruko ducked her head, embarrassed but pleased.

“So what we’d like to know,” the mayor went on, “is whether you’d considered the possibility of settling down here.”

Haruko’s hand went to her mouth. Adam blinked, and then grinned. “Tell you the truth,” he said, “we’d been wondering what was the best way to ask somebody about that. So yes, please, and thank you.”

“You’ll want a place of your own,” Juliet said, “and there are plenty of those; choose one that nobody lives in and register it with me at city hall, and it’s yours. Some of the things you’ll need you’ll have to buy or work for, but some you can get free – this town used to have upwards of seven thousand people, and a lot of their stuff is still around. The city warehouse is one of the things I manage, so check with me.”

There was more talk, about votes and town meetings and what to do if emergencies happened, but most of it slid out of Adam’s mind just as fast as it entered, pushed aside by the sheer bright awareness that the long trek from Learyville was actually over, and not the way he’d thought it might end, bleached bones along the road somewhere or the long slow fall into one of the big inland cities where so many people from Learyville went and so few survived long. Still, one memory stuck; as everyone shook hands and the visitors got ready to go, the police chief stopped, grinned, and said, “Got something of yours to give back, too,” and handed him his father’s pistol. “You might want to get that cleaned and serviced; we got a gunsmith here, you know, and if we get raiders again you’ll need it.”

The next few days were a blur: choosing a house from among the empty ones on the edge of the inhabited part of town, with a yard big enough for chickens and gardens and no leaks in the roof; going to the city warehouse and finding out just how much tableware and cooking pots, storm windows and furniture seven thousand people had left behind; meeting new neighbors and ending up at the center of a housewarming party where people from a block in every direction brought food and hand-me-downs to help tide things over until the household got going; giving two of Marge Dotson’s asparagus crowns to Earl and Anne as a thank-you gift and planting the others in the best spot of the new garden; holding Haruko as she wept out of sheer relief that her own journey, so much longer and more bitter than his, had ended so well.

Yet it didn’t feel like an ending, not to Adam. One of his new neighbors was a stocky black man named Stan, who spent his days at the docks fitting out a sailboat, a big one, with two masts and enough room belowdecks to carry cargo. Other port towns up and down the coast already had the beginnings of trading fleets, Stan told him one evening. “We ain’t never gonna see air freight again, or container ships, or any of that, but folks still gonna want things they can’t grow where they at,” he said, gesturing expansively. “I don’t know about you, but man, I’d just about kill to get my hands on real coffee, and I ain’t the only one. Head down south and you get to where they grow coffee, chocolate, chili peppers with some real heat to ‘em, all kinds of good stuff. What I don’t know yet is what they want that we got, but that won’t take but one trip to find out. Next spring the Alice May’s gonna be ready, and we gonna give it a try.”

That night, somewhere in the dark hours, Adam blinked awake from a dream: he’d been with Stan on the Alice May, wind in her sails and uncharted waters ahead, while the coast that contained everything he’d ever known drew away into a dark line astern. He lay there for what seemed like half of forever, wondering why the image felt so familiar, until clarity came. He’d been sailing into uncharted waters all his life, since a world he’d never had time to get to know drifted off into memory, and he wasn’t alone on the voyage. As he sank back into sleep, thought blurred into dream, and he was on a boat again, except that the boat was the town of Tillicum River and the sails billowed above its much-patched roofs and makeshift wall; Haruko was with him, and so were Stan and all his other neighbors, the Buddhists chanting prayers amidships, Chuck in his police hat pacing along the gunwales and Cathy Weiss at the helm. The shore fading into distance was heaped with the ruins of skyscrapers, and faces from his past – his father, Sybil, many more – floated pale and silent in the gray waves astern.

When he woke from that, the sun’s first rays were already splashing through his bedroom window and distant voices and the clatter of handcart wheels announced the beginning of another workday. Still, he lay there for a moment before waking Haruko with a kiss and getting out of bed. Uncharted waters, he thought. Would there even be a shore on the other side?

But there was work to be done, plenty of it, and a place to find or make in a home he still only half knew. He started going to the Buddhist church now and again, more because Haruko went there than for any more spiritual reason; still, the town’s six churches played a big part in weaving the community together, and Adam knew that he couldn’t risk being on the outside. The same thinking got him and Haruko to join the Grange, one of the two old lodges in town. All the farmers and the really avid gardeners in town belonged to the Grange, just as the people who worked in the brewery, the other businesses in town, and the city government all belonged to the Elks Lodge. Once he and Haruko went through the elegant little ceremony that made them Grangers, a little more of their outsider status melted away, they were woven more tightly into the net of mutual help that made for survival now that the old and never more than half-kept promise of government help had been broken beyond repair.

The police chief was a Granger, the Worthy Master that year in fact; Adam hadn’t expected that, but then he hadn’t guessed that Chuck nurtured a wild passion for tomatoes, had more than two dozen varieties turning his back yard into a jungle where the local cats stalked like tigers. He also hadn’t expected to find so many questions about the town’s farming economy settled at Grange meetings. Those questions turned more and more on the weather, because the climate was changing: warmer and wetter with each passing year, or so he gathered from the talk.

“One more spring like last one and we’re going to have to let go of the river fields,” Fred Baird, the city councillor who’d come to invite them to stay, said in one such discussion. They were sitting at the long table in the Grange hall’s dining room after the meeting. “Between the rain and the river they’re basically mud until well into summer.” Glum nods circled the table.

“Excuse me,” said Haruko after a moment, startling Adam; she still rarely spoke much in public. “Perhaps you could grow rice?”

“Grain crops haven’t done well down there for years now,” Fred said with a quick shake of his head, but Chuck gave her a long sideways look. “You ain’t talking about field rice, though, are you?” the police chief asked. “You’re talking about paddy rice.” Haruko nodded.

“You know,” said Chuck, “this could get into questions you probably don’t want to answer, so I think we’re all gonna agree that you learned about rice in California or someplace, okay?” Haruko nodded again, a little more uneasily. “Do you know how to grow paddy rice?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied. “I worked in the rice fields for eleven years – in California.”

The word on everyone’s mind and no one’s lips was “nanmin,” Adam knew. Nobody in town ever talked about the refugees from crowded, starving Japan in his hearing: proof enough, if he needed any, that they’d figured out that Haruko came from the wrong side of the Pacific.

“And you can teach us how to do that?” Chuck asked.

“Oh, yes.”

Chuck put his chin in his hand. Adam felt Haruko tense beside him, draw herself up. In a very quiet voice, she said, “If you need help, there are others – from California – who know how.”

Growing up in a dying town, Adam thought, was a good way to learn about silences – big silences and small ones, still silences and loud ones. This one roared like thunder. After a long moment, Chuck nodded, said, “I was just thinking that.”

“Chuck, I don’t know,” said Fred, frowning.

“They ain’t gonna go back home,” Chuck said then, “and they ain’t gonna stop coming. I ain’t saying we ought to just throw open the door, but we’re gonna have to deal with ‘em sooner or later. Might as well be now.”

Another long silence and then, unwillingly, Fred nodded.

Uncharted waters, Adam thought. In the evening above him, he could imagine sails billowing in a wind none of them could feel, pushing the town like the boat in his dream away from the world they knew toward a destination they could only guess at.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Scrabbling Around For Plan B

Those of my readers who have been paying attention to the financial news over the last couple of weeks may have noticed a certain weakening of the ebullient smile Wall Street likes to paste on the world. Pundits and financiers who were announcing vast profits and crowing over new stock market records a month ago are adopting a noticeably different style as they try to explain why many billions of dollars invested in hedge funds and the like aren’t there any more. The baroque financial architecture of yet another economic new era has turned out to consist mostly of bubbles rather less tiny than the ones that Don Ho used to sing about, and the results, to put things charitably, have not been good.

The carnage began with mortgage companies, not so long ago the darlings of the financial press. Eighty-odd of them have imploded in the last few months as they discovered that if you loan money to people who can’t pay it back – who’d have thought? – they can’t pay it back. Next it was the turn of hedge funds that speculated in mortgage debt, with two Bear Sterns funds leading the rush to insolvency. In the last few days, problems have surfaced in the commercial paper market, as it turned out that several firms in that end of the financial industry also have a good deal of dubious mortgage debt on their books, and in quant funds –funds that speculate in stocks using computer programs – that got slammed to the mat when the stock market didn’t behave the way their models said it would.

Meanwhile, other sectors of the credit market are looking nervously over their shoulders at their own equivalents of what the mortgage industry has uncharitably but accurately termed “toxic waste” – huge volumes of loans made with little attention to their prospects for repayment, and then offloaded onto buyers around the world whose greed for an extra percentage point of interest kept them from noticing that gamblers don’t always win their bets. Short term credit tightened up so drastically last week that central banks around the world had to dump more than $200 billion into financial markets to stave off a credit panic. Where this is going is anyone’s guess, but at this point the chance of a serious recession is hard to dismiss.

All this is interesting enough in its own right. As J.K.Galbraith pointed out in his wry classic The Great Crash 1929 – required reading for anybody interested in the vagaries of economics, not to mention the funniest work of serious economic history ever written – economic panics offer an unequaled glimpse at the gaping chasm between expectation and reality that opens up when people think they can get something for nothing. It also has real implications for the future of industrial society, since resources flushed down the ratholes of subprime mortgages, speculative hedge funds, and the like will not be available to deal with the pressing needs of an oil-dependent civilization slowly discovering that it’s already on the far side of Hubbert’s peak. All these are relevant, but the spectacle of empty air opening up beneath yesterday’s speculative boom also does a fine job of pointing out one of the most pervasive bad habits of contemporary thought.

The subprime mortgage mess is a good place to start. For many years it’s been customary in the banking industry to justify giving mortgages to people who wouldn’t normally qualify for a home loan by charging them a higher interest rate than usual. The extra income from the interest compensated the bank for the losses from those borrowers who defaulted on their loans. So far, so good, but this extra fillip of interest attracted money from outside the banking industry, and banks found that they could package mortgages into “collateralized debt obligations” – CDOs, for short – and sell them for cash, offloading risk while pocketing the proceeds of the sales.

In a time of record low interest rates, the return on subprime CDOs looked good, so long as you didn’t think too hard about the risk of default. Banks soon figured out how to hide that risk even further by slicing up packages of mortgages into multiple “tranches” that, at least on paper, had different levels of risk. The process was pushed further along when companies bought tranches of different CDOs and reassembled them into new CDOs, with their own multiple tranches, which could then be bought and reassembled ad infinitum.

Beneath all these bells and whistles, though, was the same pool of mortgage loans to people who couldn’t qualify for an ordinary mortgage – a pool that became increasingly risky as profits from the CDO market lured banks and mortgage companies into handing out mortgages with less and less attention to the borrowers’ ability to pay. The bottom of the barrel was reached with what were called NINJA loans – no income, no job or assets – which combined a hefty interest rate on paper with a fair certainty that not one cent of the interest or principal would ever be repaid.

In effect, the idea of risk had evaporated from the minds of the speculators. It’s understandable that banks and mortgage companies would stop worrying about risk once they learned to package their mortgages and sell them to other people. It’s less understandable that people who wanted to buy houses, to live in or (more and more often as the boom went on) to sell at a profit in a few months, lost track of the fact that if things went wrong they could be left with debts far beyond their ability to pay. It’s still less understandable that investors around the world would lose track of the fact that a high interest rate that never gets paid isn’t actually worth anything at all.

Still, the same myopia has appeared on cue in every previous speculative frenzy, too. Purchasers of subprime toxic waste can now join the long line of self-deluded gulls that reaches from the people in 1999 who bought stock in fly-by-night dotcom firms, all the way back to the people in 17th century Holland who spent hundreds of guilders buying single tulip bulbs on the assumption that they’d be able to sell them for even more in a few weeks. It’s an affliction endemic to market capitalism throughout its history, but it became pandemic in the last years of the 20th century and remains so today – and not just in the world of economic speculation.

It’s worth suggesting, in fact, that blindness to risk has become one of the most widespread mental habits in contemporary society. Plenty of examples could be cited, but one discussed many times in this blog – peak oil – belongs high on the list. All through the controversies about how much petroleum the world still has, how rapidly it’s being depleted, and whether or not it can be replaced by some other set of energy resources, one constant theme has been the refusal of most people outside the extreme “doomer” end of the peak community to notice that industrial civilization could end up in deep trouble if things go badly.

Those who argue that the world still contains ample supplies of oil that just haven’t been found yet, like those who insist that innovation will take care of the problem by pulling some currently unknown technological rabbit out of a hat just in time, tend to respond to such questions as “but what if you’re wrong?” in the same tone of irritated superiority as a Wall Street financier might have done a few months ago if asked what would happen if subprime defaults got out of hand. There’s an oddly incantatory quality to this nothing-can-go-wrong rhetoric, as though it will all work out fine just as long as everybody agrees it will.

As the long and sordid history of economic crises shows all too well, though, optimism is not always justified, and things that seem too good to be true generally are. Right now the world economy is reeling and shuddering because a great many otherwise intelligent people jumped to the conclusion that nothing could go wrong with a new set of moneymaking schemes that promised something for nothing. The similarities between this bit of delusion and the even more widespread faith that humanity can pump infinite amounts of cheap energy out of a finite planet leaves me wondering if the exponential expansion of industrial society over the last two centuries or so might be seen, in a certain sense, as the biggest speculative bubble of them all.

Speculative bubbles, after all, always launch themselves from a basis of fact. It was true in the 1990s that huge new fortunes were made on the Internet, and investments in computer firms during those years paid off spectacularly. It was true earlier in the present decade that a lot of Americans wanted homes of their own, and low interest rates and abundant capital from overseas made it possible for that desire to be met. Equally, it was true that the exploitation of coal, oil, and natural gas by way of an ever more sophisticated suite of technologies enabled the industrial societies of the West to enjoy the great-grandmother of all economic booms.

Just as every speculative binge eventually trips itself up on its own excessive optimism, in turn, industrial society ignored the well-timed warnings of oncoming resource depletion in the 1970s. The small but steady declines in oil production that have taken place over the last two years, despite sky-high oil prices and a flurry of well-drilling that has driven rig costs to record levels, may just turn out to be the equivalent of the rising default rates in subprime mortgages that started today’s economic landslide on its way. At the moment, industrial civilization is poised somewhere in the same period of eerie calm between the beginning of decline and the arrival of panic that comes late in the history of every speculative binge. In the example now unwinding around us, that period of calm ended a few weeks ago when Bear Sterns admitted that two of its billion-dollar hedge funds were no longer worth a cent. What will end the equivalent period in the trajectory of our civilization is still anybody’s guess, and it may still be years in the future.

Whenever it comes, though, the central problem that will have to be faced then is the same problem that banks, mortgage companies, and the global economy are having to face right now. By ignoring the reality of risk, the money managers of the last few years left themselves with very few options once the economic situation changed in a way they hadn’t anticipated. In the same way, by ignoring the possibility that we may be running out of cheap abundant energy, modern industrial civilization could well be backing itself into a corner. Without preparations in place, or even a sense of what the options might be, we could all find ourselves desperately scrabbling around for a Plan B when the illusion of endless energy supplies pops around us like a bubble – speculative or otherwise.

Monday, August 13, 2007

America and Rome

I don't usually post outside my usual once-a-week schedule, and it's even less common for me to post something that amounts to a link to something in the media, but for this, I'll make an exception. The Comptroller General of the US, David Walker, has just made a public statement comparing current US policies to those that caused the fall of the Roman Empire. What's more, he's right. Have a look at the article here.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program of bread and circuses...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cities in the Deindustrial Future

Some of the contemporary debates about the future of industrial society remind me forcefully of the opening scenes of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. The whole cast is present and accounted for. The main character, Christian, is an ordinary guy who does some incautious reading and discovers that the city where he lives is slated for total destruction. The more he reads, the more worried he gets, but he has no idea what to do about it all. He has plenty of equivalents today, of course, and so do his family and friends, who consider the whole thing overblown and are convinced that Christian has basically gone nuts.

As Christian paces back and forth in the fields, crying out “What shall I do?” and making his family’s assessment look plausible, he meets a character named Evangelist – with Bunyan, you don’t need a program to tell you who’s who – who points out the direction Christian needs to run to escape the destruction to come. With that, he’s off, and the result is a thumping good read even if you don’t happen to share the religious beliefs that motivated Bunyan’s story. That’s where A Pilgrim’s Progress parts company with today’s less spiritually driven debates, though, because a contemporary pilgrim who hopes to flee the City of Destruction can count on a tolerably large mob of Evangelist wannabees pointing in every direction you care to name.

Since well before I launched The Archdruid Report I’ve fielded my share of emails from people in Christian’s position, convinced they ought to take action to face the arrival of the deindustrial age but wholly at a loss about what exactly they ought to do about it. Most of them seem to be convinced that the wicket gate through which they need to pass is located some fairly large geographical distance from wherever they’re currently living. That’s a common assumption, of course, and it’s not new to peak oil. One of the more amusing moments during the run-up to the Y2K noncrisis happened when two people preparing to relocate got into a conversation on an online forum; one of them lived in rural Alabama and had just decided to flee for safety to the Puget Sound area of Washington state, while the other lived in the Puget Sound area and had just decided to flee for safety to rural Alabama.

Go further back and you’ll find the same thing in every secular millennialist movement the United States has seen since the dawn of the 20th century. Whether the apocalypse du jour is nuclear war, pandemic disease, racial conflict, Communist takeover, fascist police state takeover, the imminent arrival of Antichrist, or what have you, the accepted way to deal with it is to flee to some isolated location in the mountains and wait for the rubble to stop bouncing. I’ve tried to challenge the kneejerk application of this same way of thinking to the consequences of peak oil in a number of previous posts, but there’s another side to the picture – the widespread notion that cities in the aftermath of peak oil will be deathtraps by definition.

That’s a belief just as deeply rooted in Western cultural history as its counterpart, the dream of fleeing to the wilderness for sanctuary on the eve of destruction. Those with a penchant for the history of ideas can trace it back to the Book of Genesis, where Lot flees from Sodom into the wilderness of Zoar just before the fire and brimstone hits, and to other passages in the Old Testament that reflect the lasting distrust of urban life the ancient Hebrews absorbed in their nomad years. Bunyan’s vision of the City of Destruction has archaic roots, and it played early and often into an enduring social schism in America’s collective life between the genteel urban society of the east coast, with its gaze fixed on Europe as the source of culture and manners, and the impoverished rural society of the hinterlands further west where a culture independent of white America’s European roots found its seedbed. Generations of circuit riders and revivalists riffed off the contrast between urban vices and rural virtues, simultaneously flattering their listeners, undercutting competition from older denominations with east coast roots, and feeding on popular bigotries against Catholics and Jews at a time when most American members of both these faiths lived in large east coast cities.

With the coming of the twentieth century, the same way of thinking helped drive the conviction that the best way to deal with the problems of urban America was to load up the moving van and leave the city behind, in exchange for the sanctuary of some comfortably middle-class suburb out of sight and reach of the poor. Thus it’s not surprising that the same tune gets replayed in a different key in today’s American secular apocalyptic, which draws its audience mostly from the white middle class. Too often the lifeboat communities imagined by today’s peak oil writers are simply suburban bedroom communities on steroids, postapocalyptic Levittowns that, like their 1950s equivalents, are meant to allow their residents to maintain a privileged way of life while the rest of society goes to hell in a handbasket at a comfortable distance.

Step outside the potent complex of cultural factors that make a flight to rural isolation seem like the obvious response to peak oil, and things take on a very different shape. Now it’s true, of course, that some cities are much too big and much too badly sited to survive the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. Los Angeles is probably the poster child for these abandoned ruins of the not too distant future, though most of the large cities of the Southwest could give it a run for its money – it’s easy to imagine tourists of the future wandering among the fallen skyscrapers of Phoenix or Santa Fe the way today’s tourists visit Teotihuacan or Chaco Canyon. Equally, it’s hard to imagine that Manhattan or inner city Chicago will become anything in the future but vast salvage yards for metals and other resources. Yet it’s crucial to note that the vast majority of America’s cities do not fall into these categories.

Imagine, by contrast, a city of between 20,000 and 200,000 people in a mostly agricultural region; there are hundreds of such cities scattered across the North American map, so this shouldn’t be hard. In the sort of overnight collapse imagined by too many writers on peak oil these days, that could still be a very difficult place to be – but as I’ve pointed out more than once in this blog, an overnight collapse is very nearly the least likely way the downslope of Hubbert’s peak might play out. In the far more plausible scenario of uneven decline and slow depopulation spread out over many decades, such a city would have immense advantages over a rural lifeboat community. Located within easy reach of surrounding farmland, stocked with raw materials in the form of surplus buildings, cars, and the like, and a large enough work force to allow division of labor and the production of specialty goods, the city could easily import food and other necessities by supplying trade goods to the nearby countryside, the way cities in preindustrial times have always done.

These same factors make the maintenance of public order much less challenging – the sort of rural brigandage that springs up in the last years of civilizations could make life very difficult for a rural lifeboat community, but a city with a large organized militia centered on its police force and pre-decline National Guard units would be a much tougher nut to crack. Finally, most small to midsized cities have the cultural and social resources – libraries and colleges, community groups of many kinds, and a lively tradition of local politics, among other things – to maintain some approximation of civilized life even in hard times. In a deindustrializing world, all these things are potent sources of strength. While there will undoubtedly be failures from a variety of causes, all these things make cities among the most viable options for personal and cultural survival as the deindustrial age opens around us.

Historically speaking, this pattern – the largely independent city-state surrounded by its own agricultural hinterland – is one of the most common foundations for urban society, and civilizations that manage a broader level of geographical integration routinely fall back to the city-state pattern in times of disintegration. Some variant of it is very likely in the North America of the deindustrial future. Some areas of the continent lack the agricultural and resource base to support such a pattern; others will likely be in the path of armed invasions or mass migration, in which case all bets are off; the fate of Roman Britain shows what can happen when an urban society is overwhelmed by armed and hostile migrants (though Roman Gaul, which passed through a similar experience, came through it with a surprising number of its cities intact, and most of those are still viable urban centers today). Elsewhere, though – especially east of the Mississippi and west of the Cascade crest, where rainfall and soil quality combine to make sustainable organic agriculture a good bet for the foreseeable future – urban centers are likely to play a significant role through the approaching deindustrial Dark Ages and on into the successor cultures to come.

One factor that could derail this vision is the failure of urban centers to make useful preparations in the early stages of crisis. Fortunately, steps in the right direction are already being taken. More than a dozen US municipalities are already at work on their own peak oil contingency plans, and more are considering it. The “transition town” movement in the UK is working in the same direction with at least as much success. The seismic shift that has placed municipal and local governments out in front on several other issues, and left national governments behind them in the dust, seems to be under way in the peak oil field as well. When city governments draw up meaningful plans to reduce their fossil fuel usage by 50%, as Portland, Oregon did in its recently released peak oil plan, or look seriously at reestablishing local rail service, as several US cities are now doing, it’s hard to justify the claim that urban populations will check their common sense and their instinct for self-preservation at the door of peak oil and turn into the mindless ravening mobs of the classic survivalist fantasy.

For those looking for the wicket gate away from the City of Destruction, then, I have some possibly unexpected advice: the community you’re looking for may be a city not so far away, and it may even be the one in which you’re living right now. Different urban centers have different things to offer; you’ll get one set of resources and amenities in a regional center of 100,000 people and quite a different set in a liberal college town of 20,000. The sooner you choose your community, and the more effort you put into contributing to it, the better off you’ll be as the first wave of crises arrives. This option may not have the romantic aura or the symbolic kick of the isolated Utopian community so often discussed today, but it’s likely to prove a good deal more viable in the real world of the 21st century and beyond.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Adam's Story: Tillicum River

This narrative is the fourth part of an exploration of the five themes from my Archdruid Report post “Glimpsing the Deindustrial Future” using the tools of narrative fiction. As with the first three portions of “Adam’s Story,” the setting is the rural Pacific Northwest during the second half of this century.


South of the army roadblock, the coast highway swung inland and wove through hills. For three days Adam and Haruko saw no further sign of the Cascade Republic’s forces, or for that matter anyone else. Even before things began falling apart, those hills had been all but uninhabited, a region of timberland and hiking trails pierced by a few roads but never really settled. Now, other than the highway and the healing scars of logging during the war—the government fueled its tanks and planes on wood alcohol once the last overseas oil was lost, and ravaged much of the nation’s woodlands doing it—the hills looked as though they had never been visited by people at all. The woods to either side of the road offered little in the way of forage; it was a hungry time.

Early on the fourth day, the low rumble of diesel engines echoed off the hills behind them, and the two of them hurried off the road and hid in dense brush upslope. Adam worked his way to a place where he could glimpse the road below. Half a dozen trucks painted army green roared south at what he guessed was top speed. After the last echoes died away, he and Haruko picked their way warily back down to the road and followed. A few miles onthey came to a crossing where a road headed east toward the cities of the interior. Tracks in the duff showed the trucks had gone that way, and others had come from the south and taken the same road east.

“What do you think?” he asked Haruko. “South or east?” They’d talked over their route more than once, trying to guess whether the coast or inland offered the best hope of a place to settle.

“They drove like men going to fight,” she said in her halting English. “If there is war in the east, maybe south is better.”

Adam nodded. “I was thinking something like that.” South it was, then. They followed the highway south for the rest of the day and spent the night in a sheltered place just off the road.

The next morning dawned gray. After they shared the last of the food from Pells Falls, they went on. Before noon, the road wrapped around the side of one last hill and turned west. Off in the distance, where the line of a river met the sea’s edge, streams of woodsmoke rose from a patchwork of grays and browns that could only be a town. A few more hours, walking past buildings that had been stripped of anything useful, brought them to another crossing, where the highway veered south and a sign said WELCOME TO TILLICUM RIVER and pointed west.

They followed the arrow. Most of the ground on either side of the road had been cleared and turned into fields—potatoes and garden truck, mostly, along with Adam guessed was ripening grain. Ahead, the town’s edge resolved into a long gray shape that turned out to be a high wall made of broken chunks of concrete mortared roughly together. There was a gate in the wall where the road reached it, and a chair beside the gate, and a man sitting in the chair.

“Afternoon,” the man said as they walked up to the gate. Portly and graying, he had an old blue policeman’s cap perched on his head, a metal badge pinned on his shirt, and a revolver tucked unobtrusively into his belt. “What can I do for you?”

“Afternoon,” said Adam. “My wife and I are looking for work.”

“That arm of yours get in the way much?”

“There’s plenty I can still do.”

The man looked them over, nodded. “Here’s the rules. If you got a gun, you leave it with me, and my deputy frisks you and searches your packs before you get in. Any trouble, any stealing, we chuck you out without your gear, and don’t even think about coming back here, ever. You think you been cheated by somebody, talk to me or the mayor. Got it?”

“Got it.” Adam took his father’s pistol out of his pocket and gave it to the man, knowing he probably wouldn’t see it again: not much choice now, and he had so little ammo that the gun wasn’t that useful anyway. The man called out something, and a younger man with a badge on his shirt came from inside the gate, patted Adam and Haruko down, dug aimlessly through their packs, and said, “Clean as a whistle. Where to?”

“Earl’s. He’s been looking for help since Anne took sick.” To Adam and Haruko: “Earl Tigard is a good friend of mine. Give him an honest day’s work and he’ll treat you right. Mess him over and let’s just say I ain’t gonna be happy.”

A few minutes later the deputy was leading them through the streets of Tillicum River, past houses with vegetable gardens and henyards around them. “Around five hundred,” he was saying, “half or thereabouts born here, the others from towns on the coast that didn’t make it. Where’re you from?”

“Learyville,” Adam said. “North of the Meeker and back up in the hills.”

“Heard of it. Here there’s a hydro plant that still works, so we’ve got some electricity; the soil’s good and so is the harbor; we get ships sometimes, going up and down the coast, and they’ll trade for food and water. And we get people coming along the road, some honest, some not so honest. That’s why the wall’s there; we had raiders a couple of times.”

“Must have taken a lot of work to build that.”

“Yeah. Everybody puts in one day a week on town projects. That means you two, too; Earl’s day is your day so long as you work for him.”

They turned a corner onto what an old sign still labeled Main Street, passed a library that still seemed to be open and a couple of businesses that were clearly shut for good. Another old store front further on had a wooden sign above the door with some symbols Adam didn’t recognize.

“Excuse me,” said Haruko then. She didn’t speak much to strangers, not with the risk of being recognized as nanmin. “That is – Buddhist?”

“Yeah, that’s their church,” said the deputy. “Are you Buddhist?” When she nodded: “Well, there you go. You wouldn’t expect a Buddhist church here, would you? But they had a retreat center upriver back in the day; a lot of them went there during the last part of the war, when food got so scarce, and they came here when the raiders got to be too much of a problem.

“It’s a real mix here. Back when I was a kid you’d see a lot of tension. The old mossbacks and the greens didn’t agree on much of anything, some of the Christians didn’t like having Buddhists around, and the folks from Mississippi – we got a bunch of ‘em resettled here after they had to evacuate the Hurricane Coast – there was some trouble between them and the locals for a while. But that’s mostly past history these days. People pretty much get along.”

“You get any trouble from nanmin?” That was a risky question, Adam knew, but the sooner he and Haruko knew the town’s attitude to the refugees from Japan, the better.

The deputy gave him a quick glance, hard to read. “Not really. They had a camp upriver by the old Buddhist center, but they kept to themselves. I don’t know if they’re still there, with the soldiers coming through – did you run into ‘em?”

“A couple of times. We saw them leaving this morning. What’s with that?”

“Off to fight some other brand new republic. That’s what I heard, at any rate; no one’s saying who attacked who.”

Two more streets, one with a half dozen children playing ball right there in the middle, and then they came to a big Victorian house surrounded by gardens that hadn’t been tended much in weeks. “This is Earl’s,” the deputy said. Then, shouting: “Earl? You home?”

Earl Tigard turned out to be an old man with the straight posture and buzz-cut hair of a retired soldier. He was eager enough for help – his wife Anne had some kind of heart condition that nobody could treat these days – and they settled on room, board, and four credits a day. “One credit’s worth an hour’s work,” he explaned to Adam, “and everbody in town will take ‘em for anything they want to sell. Might come in handy.”

Before long Adam was in the backyard splitting firewood while Haruko tackled the kitchen: the old division of labor was coming back pretty widely now that it made economic sense again. The firewood was a mess, part of it salvaged from dismantled buildings and riddled with nails, part of it knotty hardwood from trees he didn’t recognize. Still, he’d reduced the woodlot to some semblance of order and made a good start on the garden weeding before Earl came out to call him in for dinner. The meal was plain solid fare, as good as anything he’d had since Learyville, and afterwards they all sat in the living room near the fire, sipping cups of dandelion root coffee and talking, while the night closed in outside.

“Oh, I grew up here,” Earl said at one point, leaning back in his chair. “Alice and I both. Got married right out of high school and moved all over everywhere when I went into the army, then came back to settle when I left the service in ’42. The place had changed a lot. All these greens, talking about organic process and local dependency and all that stuff. I thought they were nuts.” He chuckled. “I guess even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. We’d have done a lot worse without them.”

“I saw some pretty good gardens in town,” Adam said.

“True enough. You do a lot of gardening?”

“I used to get some pretty good asparagus up in Learyville.”

Earl looked wistful. “God, I used to love asparagus. We haven’t had any since the grocery stores shut down; nobody grew it here, and we haven’t been able to get any in trade yet.”

Adam thought of the six asparagus crowns wrapped in cloth in the bottom of his pack, but said nothing. Later, he thought. If –

That last word was still on his mind as he and Haruko settled down under the covers in the spare bedroom they’d been allotted. Haruko had been thinking, too. “Adam,” she whispered, “maybe we should stay here.”

“If they’ll let us,” he whispered back. “We’ll just have to see.”

Wind hissed in the trees outside, and somewhere in the middle distance a dog barked. Adam pulled her close and tried to silence the questions that circled endlessly in his mind.