Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lifeboat Time

One of the more notable news stories of the last week concerned the fate of M/S Explorer, a cruise ship built for polar seas that turned out to be not quite up to the rigors of the job. Before dawn on November 23, while cruising just north of the Antarctic peninsula, she rammed into submerged sea ice, leaving a fist-sized hole in the hull and water coming in faster than her pumps could handle. Fifteen hours later the Explorer was on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately the captain had the great good sense to order an evacuation well in advance. Even more fortunately, everyone knew what to do, and did it without quibbling. Crew and passengers abandoned all their possessions except the clothes they wore, donned survival suits, climbed into lifeboats, and spent five cold hours watching the Explorer fill up with water and heel over until another ship came to pick them up. Later the same day they were safe at a Chilean coast guard base on the South Shetland Islands, waiting for a plane ride home.

I thought of that story this morning while surveying the latest round of debates about peak oil, global warming, the imploding debt bubble, and half a dozen other symptoms of the unfolding crisis of industrial society now under way. By this point there are few metaphors for crisis more hackneyed than the fatal conjunction of ship and iceberg, but the comparison retains its usefulness because it throws the issues surrounding crisis management into high relief. When the hull’s pierced and water’s rising belowdecks, the window of opportunity for effective action is brief, and if the water can’t be stopped very soon, it’s lifeboat time.

By almost any imaginable standard, that time has arrived for the industrial world. Debates about whether world petroleum production will peak before 2030 or not miss a point obvious to anybody who’s looked at the figures: world petroleum production peaked in November 2005 at some 86 million barrels of oil a day, and has been declining slowly ever since. So far the gap has been filled with tar sands, natural gas liquids, and other unconventional liquids, all of which cost more than ordinary petroleum in terms of money and energy input alike, and none of which can be produced at anything like the rate needed to supply the world’s rising energy demand. As depletion of existing oil fields accelerates, the struggle to prop up the current production plateau promises to become a losing battle against geological reality.

Meanwhile the carbon dioxide generated by the 84 million barrels a day we’re currently pumping and burning, along with equally unimaginable volumes of coal and natural gas, drives changes in climate that only a handful of oil company flacks and free-market fundamentalists still insist aren’t happening. Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers – the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up 50 to 60 feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

In related news, Atlanta may just be on the verge of edging out New Orleans as the poster child for climate catastrophe. Unless the crippling years-long drought over the southeast United States gives way to heavy rains very soon, Atlanta will run completely out of drinking water sometime in the new year. The city government has had to explain to worried citizens that they are out of options, and there aren’t enough tanker trucks in all of Dixie to meet the daily water needs of a big city. Nobody is willing to talk about what will happen once the last muddy dregs in the Georgia reservoirs are pumped dry, and the drinking fountains, toilet tanks, and fire hydrants of greater metropolitan Atlanta have nothing to fill them but dust.

As Macchiavelli commented in a different context, though, people care more about their finances than their lives, and even the Atlanta papers have seen the drought shoved off the front page now and then by the latest round of implosions in the world of high finance. For those of my readers who haven’t been keeping score, banks and financial firms around the world spent most of the last decade handing out mortgages to anybody with a pulse, packaging up the right to profit from those mortgages into what may just be the most misnamed “securities” in the history of financial markets, and selling them to investors around the world.

On this noticeably unsteady foundation rose the biggest speculative bubble in recorded history, as would-be real estate moguls borrowed dizzying sums to buy up property they were convinced could only go up in value, while investors whose passion for profit blinded them to the risk of loss snapped up a torrent of exotic financial products whose connection to any significant source of value can be safely described as imaginary. All this hallucinated wealth, though, depended on the theory that people with no income, job, or assets could and would pay their mortgage bills on time, and when this didn’t happen, the whole tower of cards began coming apart. Some of the world’s largest banks have already taken billions of dollars in losses, and nobody is even pretending that the economic carnage is over yet.

Connect the dots and the picture that emerges will be familiar to those of my readers who have taken the time to struggle through the academic prose of How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse. One of the central points of that paper is that the decline and fall of a civilization unfolds in a series of crises separated by incomplete recoveries. The point is not an original one; Arnold Toynbee discussed the same rhythm of breakdown and respite most of a century earlier in his magisterial A Study of History. If that same pattern will shape the fate of our own civilization – and it’s hard to think of a reason why it should not – the second wave of crisis in the decline and fall of the industrial world may be breaking over our heads right now.

No, that wasn’t a misprint. Historians of the future will likely put the peak of modern industrial civilization between 1850 and 1900, when the huge colonial empires of the Euro-American world hit the zenith of their global reach. The first wave in the decline of our civilization lasted from 1929 to 1945, and was followed by a classic partial recovery in which public extravagance masked the disintegration of the imperial periphery. Compare the unsteady, hole-and-corner American economic empire of today with the British Empire’s outright dominion over half the world in 1900, say, and it’s hard to miss the signs of decline.

Today we may well be facing the beginning of the next wave. One advantage this concept offers is the realization that the experience of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations may offer a useful perspective on what’s coming. In the summer of 1929, nobody I know of predicted the imminent arrival of unparalleled economic disaster, followed by the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the bloodiest war in human history. Such things seemed to be stowed safely away in the distant past. From today’s perspective, though, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that something not unlike the bitter experiences of 1929-1945 – different in detail, surely, but equivalent in scale – may be in the offing.

If that’s likely – and I believe it is – we’re in much the same situation as the passengers of M/V Explorer were last Friday, but with an unwelcome difference. No alarm has been sounded, no order to evacuate announced over the p/a system. The captain and half the crew insist that nothing is wrong, while the other half of the crew insist that everything will be all right if they can only replace the current captain with another of their own choosing. The only warning being given comes from a handful of passengers who took the time to glance down into the hold and saw the water rising there, and while some people are listening to the bad news, next to nobody’s making any preparations for what could be a very, very rough time immediately ahead.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention know already that the preparations I have in mind don’t include holing up in a mountain cabin with crates of ammunition, stacks of gold bars, and way too many cans of baked beans in the pantry. Nor do they involve signing onto the latest crusade to throw one batch of scoundrels out of office so another batch of scoundrels can take its place. Rather, I’m thinking of a couple of friends of mine who are moving from the east coast megalopolis where they’ve spent most of their adult lives to a midwestern city small enough that they can get by without a car. I’m thinking of the son-in-law of another friend who is setting up a forge and learning blacksmithying in his spare time, so he’ll have a way of earning a living when his service economy job evaporates out from under him. I’m thinking of another couple of friends who just moved back to his aging parents’s farm to help keep it running.

For a great many people just now, actions like those are unthinkable, and even the simplest steps to prepare for financial crisis – paying down debts, reining in expenditures, making sure savings are in federally insured banks rather than the imaginary economy of paper assets, and putting by extra food in the cupboard and useful supplies in the shed to deal with the spot shortages and business bankruptcies that usually accompany economic crisis – are off the radar screen. That’s unfortunate, because some tolerably simple changes made now, while there’s still time to make them, could spare a lot of people a lot of grief not that far down the road.

It’s no fun to be jolted out of bed before dawn by a warning siren, and told that you have to head for the nearest lifeboat station, leaving everything behind but the clothes on your back. It’s even less fun to climb down into an open lifeboat in 20°F weather, knowing you’ll be tossed around on the gray Antarctic seas until somebody responds to the SOS – if anybody does. Still, add up all the unpleasantness of both and they’re still preferable to a last-minute scramble for survival on a sinking ship, when half the lifeboats and survival suits are already under water and the deck is heeling over so fast the other half may be out of reach.

Millions of people went through some approximation of that last experience between 1929 and 1945. Millions more may undergo the same sort of thing once the current crisis gets under way. There’s been plenty of talk about peak oil and the twilight of the industrial world, and that’s been useful in its way, but talk doesn’t substitute for constructive action when lifeboat time arrives.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Adaptive Responses to Peak Oil

One of the occupational hazards of writing a blog on the future of industrial civilization, I’ve discovered, is the occasional incoming missive from somebody with a plan to save the world. My inbox fielded another of those the other day. As worldsaving plans go, this one is relatively modest, and by no means entirely misguided.

My correspondent hopes to convince the American people, or at least some portion thereof, to resettle in largely self-sufficient villages of 5000 to 10,000 people, compact enough that nobody will need to own or use a car. Each village owns enough land around it to feed its population, using edible forest crops and the like as the basis for subsistence. There’s a good deal more; you can find the rest of the details on the website my correspondent recommended.

Taken in the abstract, this is a great plan, and I suspect that a fair number of my readers would be as pleased as I would to move into such a village. As usual, though, the devil is in the details, and it’s as ugly a devil as ever graced a medieval morality play. Like those theatrical devils, though, this one has his uses. A close look at why my correspondent’s plan won’t save civilization from peak oil makes a good introduction to a theme that will be central to most of the next year or so of Archdruid Report posts – the question of how to craft an adaptive response to the coming of the deindustrial age.

It’s a rich word, “adaptive.” In the jargon of evolutionary biology, it refers to anything that allows an organism to respond effectively to the demands of its environment. When the environment is stable, what makes an organism adaptive stays pretty much the same from generation to generation. When the environment changes, though, what’s adaptive can change as well, sometimes radically; genetic variations that would have been problematic under the old conditions become advantages under the new; if the shift is large enough, a new species emerges. This points up the other, dictionary definition of the word – according to my Webster’s Ninth, “showing or having a capacity for or tendency toward adaptation.”

Both these meanings have crucial relevance to the work ahead of us as industrial society skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak. On the one hand, it’s crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the ecological sense – that is, well suited to the new reality of a world of scarce energy and hard environmental limits. At the same time, we won’t simply be landing plump in that new reality overnight, nor do we know in advance exactly what that new reality will look like, so it’s just as crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the dictionary sense – that is, capable of adapting to the unpredictable changes of a world in transition.

The problem with my correspondent’s plan is that it may be adaptive in one sense, but it’s not adaptive at all in the other. It seems quite likely that a network of largely independent towns with populations in the 5000 to 10,000 range might be well adapted to the human and natural environments of a deindustrialized world, though that’s a guess at this stage of the process. It’s the process of getting there that’s the difficulty.

Let’s look at the numbers for a moment. Assume a population of 8000 and an average of 4 persons per family, and you need 2000 new homes for the community. We’ll assume that these homes are cheaper than the median US home – say, $250,000 apiece on average. That gives you a startup cost of $500 million. Add to that the cost of community infrastructure – everything from water and electricity to a school, a library, and the like – not to mention the farmland surrounding the village, and you’ve roughly doubled your price tag to $1 billion.

Even if half your residents own their own homes now and can pay for their new housing out of their equity – not a likely situation in the midst of today’s housing crash and credit crunch – and all the residents put in a great deal of sweat equity in the form of unpaid labor building the village, it’s still going to cost a great deal. If you had 2000 families committed enough to the project to risk their financial future on it, it might nonetheless be possible to make it happen. Still, that’s a huge risk, and it’s made even larger by the fact that the new village is going to have to provide jobs for all its adult residents – part of the point of the exercise is that nobody owns a car, remember, so commuting to the nearest city is out.

Nor can the village’s inhabitants count on being magically transported to a deindustrial world, where they can simply harvest their edible forest crops and barter skills among themselves. For many years to come, they will have bills to pay – not least the costs incurred in setting up the village – and national, state, and local taxes as well. Will the new village be able to provide its residents jobs that will insure their financial survival? Many small towns in the same population range are failing to do that right now. Behind the attractive image of a self-sufficient village in the countryside, in other words, lies the hard reality of a $1 billion gamble for survival against serious economic odds.

That $1 billion gamble, furthermore, would at best only take 8000 people out of the automobile economy – few enough that statistical noise will cover any impact they might have on the larger picture. Imagine a program to take 10% of the US population out of the automobile economy instead; that’s the sort of scale such a program would need in order to have any measurable effect on the fate of industrial society. The price tag there would be around $3.8 trillion in direct costs, plus the huge indirect costs involved in abandoning or relocating 10% of the country’s existing housing stock, residential and community infrastructure, and so on. It would take years, and possibly generations, for the savings in petroleum costs to make up for the huge initial outlay, and if the program turned out not to work – if, for whatever reason, the world on the far side of Hubbert’s peak turned out not to be suited to villages of the sort my correspondent envisions – all that outlay would have been wasted.

Now my correspondent’s plan is far from the most extreme example of this kind of unadaptive thinking. The poster children here are the dwindling tribe of technology fans who believe that fusion power will save us if we only commit enough money to research. It’s been well over half a century since the first attempts to make a viable fusion reactor got under way, and the only working example in the solar system is still 93,000,000 miles away from Earth, rising in the eastern skies every morning as it turns hydrogen into helium at its own unhurried pace. We have absolutely no certainty that another trillion dollars of investment will get us any closer to commercially viable fusion power, and if the gamble fails, industrial society is left twisting in the wind with a great deal of empty space beneath its feet.

The problem shared by these, and so many other proposed responses to the predicament of industrial society, is that they aren’t adaptive in the second, dictionary sense. They bet the farm on a single strategy, and if that fails, there is no plan B. Such plans look good on paper, but that’s usually as far as they go, because the factors in the human and natural environment that would make them possible simply aren’t there. For some forty years now, for instance, people have been talking about village communities like the ones my correspondent described. Very few have even been started, fewer have been built, and the ones that have become viable communities can be counted on the fingers of one foot.

What sort of response to the emerging crisis of the industrial world would count as adaptive? We’ll be talking about that for quite a number of posts to come, but a few suggestions might be worth making at this point.

First, an adaptive response is scalable – that is, it can be started and tested on a very small scale, with a minimal investment of resources, and then expanded from there if it proves to work. A fusion reactor is not scalable; you either have one, after trillions of dollars of further investment, or you don’t. My correspondent’s village proposal is a good deal more scalable than this, but even so it’s impossible to give it a try without at least a few hundred families and quite a bit of money. What we need, by contrast, are responses that can start out with individuals committing only the money, resources and time they can easily spare.

Second, an adaptive response is modular – that is, it can be broken down into distinct elements, each of which functions on its own without needing the involvement of all the other parts. That allows something that doesn’t work well to be swapped out without disrupting the rest of the system; it also allows elements suited to one stage of the deindustrializing process to be replaced with something else when that stage gives way to another. Think of the difference between a machine and a toolkit. A machine either does the job or it doesn’t, and if the job changes, you usually have to replace the entire tool. If you have a toolkit, by contrast, the jobs that can’t be done with one tool can usually be done with another.

Third, an adaptive response is open – that is, it can be combined freely with other approaches to the challenges of the future and the enduring predicaments of human existence. None of us can know in advance what belief systems, socioeconomic arrangements, and lifestyle choices will turn out to be most adaptive at each stage of the decline of industrial society. Locking a response into one particular set of approaches limits its usefulness, and could lead people in the future to jettison valuable options because they have become too thoroughly entangled with a dysfunctional economic system or a discredited ideology.

These characteristics look back toward some of the issues already discussed in this blog, but they also open unfamiliar doors. As we peer through those doors in the weeks and months to come, it might be possible to glimpse something of what adaptive responses to the predicament of the industrial world might look like.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fascism, Feudalism, and the Future

One of the things that I can’t help noticing, as someone who listens for narratives in the ways people talk about the future, is the way that certain motifs reappear over and over again in discussions surrounding peak oil and the future of industrial society. These are distinct from the great mythic stories that shape so many accounts of the future – the myth of salvation through technological progress, for example, or its usual debating partner, the myth of redemption from an evil society through apocalypse. The motifs I’m speaking of here are more self-contained and more flexible, and pop up in most visions of the future in circulation these days.

One classic example is the image of mindless, marauding hordes spilling out of the dying cities and ravaging everything in their path. This one has been a recurring cultural nightmare in the western world for a couple of centuries now, since the cities of the industrial world disconnected themselves socially from their agricultural hinterlands and began filling up with immigrant populations. Read such classic fictional treatments of the theme as Newton Thornburg’s Valhalla (1980) and it’s clear that on this side of the Atlantic, at least, it roots into the enduring emotional legacy of American racism, the terror of the dark Other on which the shadow of white America’s unacknowledged desires has long been projected.

You can look through history books in vain for examples of urban populations invading the countryside en masse in the twilight years of civilizations, but the motif remains stuck firmly in place. The inhabitants of Willits, one of the few American towns that have taken the imminence of peak oil seriously, have apparently laid plans to blow up highway bridges leading into town from the south, to keep those imaginary mobs at bay. Willits is in liberal northern California, but it’s embraced the same fantasy that leads survivalists on the opposite end of the political spectrum to indulge in wet dreams about automatic weapons blazing away at marauding hordes.

The motif I want to talk about in this week’s post has equally complex roots, and bridges the narrowing gap between the far left and the far right in a similar way. This is the belief that the American political class – those rich and influential people whose unity, power, and malevolence are articles of faith across the farther shores of American politics – are plotting to impose an authoritarian regime combining feudalism and fascism in the wake of peak oil. Like the belief in rampaging urban hordes, the imminence of this “feudal-fascist” takeover can be found in peak oil literature from every point along the political spectrum.

The words “feudalism” and “fascism” appear so often and are used so loosely in this context that it’s worth remembering that they actually do have exact meanings. Feudalism is a specific form of social organization that springs up in the aftermath of sociopolitical collapse. When central government disintegrates, money economies implode, and pervasive violence is everywhere, one of the few effective responses is a radical decentralization of power that hands control over small regions to magnates who can raise a corps of professional warriors, feed and support it with local agricultural produce, and defend their fiefs against all comers.

A feudal society is a legal hierarchy of decentralized force. In feudalism, the place of every human being from monarch to serf is measured precisely by that person’s ability to wield violence, and is matched by an elaborate hierarchy of rights and responsibilities. It bears remembering that the Magna Carta, the foundation of Anglo-American constitutional law, is a quintessentially feudal document; under feudalism, serfs had rights that at least in theory, kings could not arbitrarily set aside, though those rights were doubtless honored about as often as the rights of the poor in industrial societies today. Harsh and by modern standards unjust, feudal systems nonetheless flourish in desperate times because they offer an effective bulwark against violence and chaos, and provide each person some measure of security under the rule of law.

Fascism, even in the broadest sense of the term, is a far more culturally specific phenomenon that sprang up in Europe and Latin America in the aftermath of the First World War and faded out, where it had not been forcibly blotted out, after the Second. Allied wartime propaganda from the 1940s still has most people thinking of the metastatic nightmare of Nazi Germany as the archetype of fascism, but the mainstream of the fascist movement came out of Italy, where Benito Mussolini launched it with with his seizure of power in 1922. In Italy as elsewhere, fascism was a radically centralized socialist-capitalist hybrid that opposed communism while borrowing many of the Soviet regime’s own features.

In fascist societies, property remained in private hands, but capitalist competition was replaced by government coordination, and wages and prices were set by edict; labor unions existed, but workers were forbidden to strike and disputes were arbitrated by government tribunals. Public officials were appointed by the party leadership rather than being elected by the people, as in democracy, or inheriting their positions, as in feudalism. The rule of law was explicitly abandoned in favor of the “will of the nation,” which in practice meant the will of the party leadership. Fascist political philosophy explicitly argued that there should be as few levels as possible in the chain of command between the leader and the individual citizen, and the result was unfree but distinctly egalitarian – that is, everyone outside the top leadership of the party had the same lack of rights as everyone else.

Compare fascism to feudalism and massive differences outweigh the few similarities: a radically centralized society versus a radically decentralized one, a complete lack of individual rights versus an elaborately detailed code of rights for each person, the unchecked will of the leader versus the formal rule of law, and the list goes on. In the modern world, certainly, the two have also appealed to different social classes – fascism to the lower middle classes and skilled laborers, feudalism to the old aristocracy. It’s not an accident that the most sustained opposition to Hitler’s regime in Germany came from the Prussian aristocracy; the famous bomb plot that nearly vaporized the F├╝hrer and ended the war most of a year in advance was planned and executed by as blue-blooded a conspiracy as any in history.

So what on earth would a feudal-fascist regime be? A radically decentralized centralized state with an egalitarian hierarchy that both had and lacked individual rights and the rule of law? Clearly the words “fascism” and “feudalism” are not being here used to mean what they actually mean. Rather, they are what S.I. Hayakawa used to call “snarl words:” terms of abuse invoked because they evoke a predictable emotional response.

Behind this lies the ugliest of the left’s bad habits, its habit of demonizing those who disagree with its political stances. It’s not enough, for example, to argue that the political hacks and free market ideologues who make up the current US administration have pursued bad policies with astonishing ineptitude and more than the usual dollop of corruption, as indeed they have; for many people on the left today, the dismal performance of the Bush administration has to be forced into the Procrustean bed of a conspiracy theory in which every bumbling misadventure becomes a step in a sinister plan deliberately aimed at creating a dystopian society.

Now it’s only fair to point out that today’s left borrowed this habit from yesterday’s far right. The dubious claims of concentration camps under construction now being circulated by the left have their exact parallels in the equally dubious rumors about black helicopters and uniformed UN troops on America’s highways in the aftermath of Clinton’s 1992 electoral victory. More generally, it’s remarkable to see how much of today’s left-wing thinking has its roots in the ideas of the extreme right a half century ago. Trace back the rhetoric today’s radicals use to denounce the Council on Foreign Relations and multinational corporations to its source, and you’ll find an unlikely godparent: Robert Welch, founder and chief ideologue of the John Birch Society, who made all the same accusations in the 1950s under the banner of extreme conservatism.

It needs to be recognized that any time somebody starts insisting that the political party they happen not to like is a fair imitation of evil incarnate, what’s going on has little to do with the sort of dispassionate analysis that might actually give us a sense of the shape the future holds. Like the motif of marauding urban hordes, I’ve come to think, the mythology of an evil elite plotting world enslavement is the projection of the shadow of unacknowledged desires – in this case, the desire for power over others. It’s a normal human desire; the political systems of most stable countries have checks and balances to contain it and channel it in useful directions; but the ideology of the contemporary left, like that of the extreme anticommunist right in America half a century ago, denies it any place at all. A scapegoat thus has to be found to bear the onus of unacknowledged desire. To Robert Welch, that scapegoat was international communism; for the contemporary left, it’s George W. Bush.

Even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day, mind you, and the fact that much of today’s radical rhetoric was invented by a man who believed Barry Goldwater was a communist sympathizer does not necessarily disprove it. A feudal-fascist society may be every bit as possible as a square circle, but fascism and feudalism – as social systems rather than snarl words – may well end up playing roles in the complex historical tapestry of industrial society’s decline and fall. Most modern industrial societies had already adopted fascist habits of government economic coordination and leadership by charisma rather than law by the time Mussolini’s corpse was laid to rest, and the temptation to push things further in the same direction in a time of emergency is always present.

That temptation, it should be noted, affects the left as much as the right. I’ve pointed before to David Korten’s The Great Turning as an example of this, but it bears repeating here. According to Korten, those who share his own background and opinions are naturally gifted with the ability to lead humanity through the present crisis, and ought to be given the unchecked power to do so. Those of my readers who can’t see in this the potential seed of a future green fascism may want to compare works such as Korten’s to the early manifestoes of the fascist parties of the 1920s and 1930s. Of course there are also plenty of would-be leaders invoking F├╝hrerprinzip on the right as well, and there’s a certain morbid fascination to whether one side, the other, or some fusion of the two will attempt a grab for power first.

Feudalism, if it is to happen, lies further in the future. If the spiral of catabolic collapse now beginning to pull at industrial civilization succeeds in dragging it all the way down to complete social disintegration, some form of feudalism is pretty much a given. If the only alternative is the reign of unchecked violence, most people will settle for basic physical security and the rule of law, however unequal the laws in question might be.

Only if some semblance of a functioning government still exists at the bottom of the curve, and holds the war of all against all in check, can we count on skipping a feudal period in the deindustrial future. Equally, it’s only the survival of a constitutional government, however flawed this may be, that can keep fascism at bay in the early stages of decline and fall. Neither of those goals will be furthered in the least by pouring rhetorical napalm on the fires of partisan hatred, insisting that one’s political opponents must be motivated by sheer evil, and projecting one’s own unresolved issues onto the nearest convenient enemy.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Waiting for the Other Shoe

Picking a route down the far side of Hubbert’s peak requires some of the same skills hikers use when navigating any other mountain trail, and one of those skills is a curious sort of double vision. On the one hand, you have to pay attention to the terrain around you, watching for places where the footing might prove treacherous or other hazards such as falling rocks might make the trip a little too exciting. On the other hand, you have to pay attention to the bigger picture, the way the land lies, so the trail you choose will actually take you in the direction you want to go.

In the last few months here on The Archdruid Report I’ve dealt mostly with that longer view, partly out of disquiet with the peak oil community’s fixation on immediate issues, partly in an attempt to lay foundations for a conversation about how choices we make today can help shape the far future. I’d planned on continuing that this week with another exploration of the successional process that bids fair to shape the next few centuries of human social evolution. Still, sometimes you have to set the long view aside and concentrate on the ground in front of your feet, and that may turn out to be a good idea just now.

I suspect most people whose interest in the news doesn’t center on Britney Spears’ taste in underwear have noticed some very unsettling data points in the last three months or so. Since August 15 of this year, the price of crude oil has shot up $25 a barrel and the price of gold has rocketed $175 an ounce, and these are just the poster children for soaring commodity prices that have affected nearly every raw material for sale in the world. Part of this is driven by real scarcities. The usually optimistic International Energy Agency, for example, has issued an uncharacteristically harsh report warning that global petroleum supply is failing to keep up with demand, creating an energy crunch that will only get worse in the decades to come

Another part of this shift, though, tracks the continuing collapse in the US dollar. Since August 15, the British pound is up 6% and the Euro 9% relative to the dollar. The only currencies that buy as many dollars as they did a month ago are those locked to the dollar by government edict, and some of those governments, at least, are having second thoughts. The latest round of panic selling of dollars today was sparked by a comment by a Chinese banker that his government was really going to have to get more of its reserves out of the dollar and into some stronger currency.

At the same time, the subprime mortgage collapse – a misnomer, really, since many billions of dollars in supposedly AAA mortgages and other speculative instruments have turned out to have values just as evanescent as the most dubious subprime loan – is continuing to worsen. Citibank, the world’s largest bank just now, announced over the weekend that they had lost $11 billion over the last month. Several other big banks have made similar admissions in the last two weeks or so. One of this morning’s news stories mentions that US investment banks will shortly have to write off approximately $100 billion of paper value on top of this; other stories hint at even larger losses waiting further down the road.

Meanwhile, the New York Stock Exchange has announced that the controls on computer trading put in place to damp down volatility after the huge 1987 stock market crash are being discontinued. According to NYSE officials the controls, which were triggered eleven times last month, are “no longer necessary.” On a day when the Dow plunged 360 points amid panic selling of banking and real estate stocks, this is not exactly a comforting claim.

The last of these unsettling news stories comes from an unexpected place: the pen of Francis Fukuyama, the Johns Hopkins professor whose 1989 essay “An End to History?” attempted to portray America’s victory in the Cold War as the culmination of human history and provided the intellectual underpinnings, such as they were, for the Bush I and Clinton administrations. More recently Fukuyama made the news again as part of the right-wing revolt against the current administration’s disastrous policies in Iraq and the resulting wreck of the post-Cold War international order.

His latest essay starts with a commentary on the rise and fall of American hegemony in the post-9/11 era. At the end of the essay, though, he suggests that maybe the world would be better off if the US were kept in line by a balance of power – even if not all the players in the balance of power were not, in his delicate phrase, “fully democratic.”

This is an astounding admission. What Fukuyama is suggesting is that he – and by extension, the faction of the US political class for whom he has long been the spokesperson – would be willing to accept the end of America’s global dominance and the emergence of a world order in which Russia and China – the less-than-fully-democratic powers he clearly has in mind – have some measure of parity with the US. From anybody in the American political class, this would be a remarkable statement; from the onetime prophet of a unipolar world under American leadership, it looks suspiciously like a white flag.

I am an archdruid, not an economist or a political scientist, and my exposure to the worlds of high finance and international politics consists entirely of interested observation at a distance. The precise meaning of each of these scraps of information can be left to specialists. Their broader significance, though, may be of much greater importance. None of these data points is a symptom of business as usual. Combine them with the many other troubling stories moving through the media, the internet, and specialist journals, and it’s hard to miss the implication that a major discontinuity may be approaching.

One of the reasons I find ecology a useful guide to history is that the natural world and the human world relate to time and change in similar ways. Most of the time, in an ecosystem or a human society, change happens gradually, cycling through predictable patterns or bridging the space between one set of conditions and another. Watch a vacant lot turning back into woodland or a pond moving through its annual cycle and the continuities are much more striking than the changes, at least in the time scales the human senses and mind pick up most easily. Similarly, human societies change through the cumulative impact of many small changes over time, and it’s often only in retrospect that we blink in surprise, wondering where a once-familiar world went.

Sudden change is the exception, not the rule, but it does happen. The implosion of the global economy after the September 1929 stock market crash, the dizzying plunges into war in the summer months of 1914 and 1939, and the disintegration of the Communist bloc at the end of the 1980s are examples of the way radical changes can sweep over a society. In each case, human affairs continued along their normal course while pressures built beneath the surface, and warnings of the coming crisis fell on deaf ears, until the deluge hit and swept every trace of business as usual before it. In each case it took years for stability to return, and when it did, much of the old order of things had vanished forever.

Prophecy is a risky business at best, and archdruids are not necessarily any better at it than anyone else. Still, the possibility that another such wave of dramatic change might be about to break over the industrial world has been much on my mind of late. The model of the future I’ve been discussing on The Archdruid Report for the last year and a half envisions a stairstep process of decline, with sudden discontinuities followed by periods of respite and partial recovery. A real chance exists that the tremors in the commodities and credit markets are foreshocks of the first such downward lurch, an economic crisis that might leave most of today’s conventional wisdom in shreds.

If this is the case, there may not be much time to make preparations before the pressure of events puts anything beyond day-to-day crisis management out of reach. Still, this might not be a bad time for my readers to shed any speculative investments they might have, to be particularly wary of economic risks, and to keep more food than usual in the pantry, while we wait to see if the other shoe will drop.