Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Merlin's Time

Perhaps the most interesting responses to the discussion of mass movements here on The Archdruid Report have been those that insisted that the only alternative, either to a mass movement in the abstract or to some specific movement, was defeat and despair. That’s an odd sort of logic, since mass movements are hardly the only tool in the drawer; I suspect that part of what drives the insistence is the herd-mindedness of our species – we are, after all, social mammals with most of the same inborn habits of collective behavior you’ll find in any of the less solitary vertebrates.

Still, the pressure toward some such movement has another potent force driving it: the awkward fact that the vast majority of people today simply do not want to hear how difficult their future is going to be. It doesn’t matter how good your evidence is or how well you make your case, most of your listeners will simply look uncomfortable and change the subject. Why this should be the case is an interesting question; I suspect that much of the blame lies with the cult of positive thinking Barbara Ehrenreich anatomized in a recent book, though I’m quite willing to hear alternative explanations.

Still, for whatever reason, an extraordinary blindness to the downside has become crazy-glued in place straight across contemporary culture. From economists who insist that the bubble du jour (right now, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s government debt) can keep on inflating forever, through technology fans who believe devoutly that their favorite piece of drawing-board vaporware will necessarily solve the world’s problems without side effects and with spare change left over, to millions of ordinary people who can’t or won’t imagine a future without the material abundance of recent decades, we seem to have lost the collective capacity to recognize that things can and do go very, very wrong. It’s not merely a matter of blindness to the “black swan” events Nassim Nicholas Taleb made famous, either; we’re just as bad at seeing white swans coming, even when they’ve been predicted for decades and the sky is so thick with them that it’s hard to see anything else.

It’s an appalling predicament: how can a community prepare for a troubled future if most people tune out even the slightest suggestion that it might be troubled? It’s for this reason, seemingly, that many people in the peak oil scene have chosen to downplay the difficulties and insist that we can have a bright, happy, abundant future if we just pursue whatever baby steps toward sustainability we all find congenial. I’ve been assured by some of the people making such claims that they’re perfectly aware that the situation is far more difficult and dangerous than that, but that the need to get as people involved in some kind of movement toward sustainability is so great, they say, that waffling on that point is as justified as it is necessary.

As it happens, I think they’re making a hideous mistake. I’ve discussed the reasons for that perception at length in several recent posts, and won’t rehash them here. The question that remains is whether there are any viable alternatives, and that’s the question I want to address in today’s post. To explain the option I have in mind, though, it may be useful to borrow a metaphor from history.

I don’t know how many of my readers know this, but my most recent publication is a translation of a very strange book from the Middle Ages. Its title is Picatrix, and it is one of the sole surviving examples of that absolute rarity of medieval literature, a textbook for apprentice wizards. Those of my readers who grew up on stories about Merlin, Gandalf et al. take note: those characters, legendary or fictional as they are, were modeled on an actual profession that flourished in the early Middle Ages, and remained relatively active until the bottom fell out of the market at the end of the Renaissance.

By "wizard" here I don’t mean your common or garden variety fortune teller or ritual practitioner; we have those in abundance today. The wizard of the early Middle Ages in Europe and the Muslim world, rather, was a freelance intellectual whose main stock in trade was good advice, though admittedly that came well frosted with incantation and prophecy as needed. He had a good working knowledge of astrology, which filled roughly the same role in medieval thought that theoretical physics does today, and an equally solid knowledge of ritual magic, but his training did not begin or end there. According to Picatrix, the compleat wizard in training needed to get a thorough education in agriculture; navigation; political science; military science; grammar, languages, and rhetoric; commerce, all the mathematics known at the time, including arithmetic, geometry, music theory, and astronomy; logic; medicine, including a good knowledge of herbal pharmaceuticals; the natural sciences, including meteorology, mineralogy, botany, and zoology; and Aristotle’s metaphysics: in effect, the sum total of the scientific learning that had survived from the classical world.

Now it may have occurred to my readers that this doesn’t sound like the sort of education you’d get at Hogwarts, and that’s exactly the point. Whether you believe that the movements of the planets foretell events on Earth, as almost everyone did in the Middle Ages, or whether you think astrology is simply a clever anticipation of game theory that gets its results by inserting random factors into strategic decisions to make them unpredictable, you’ll likely recognize that a soothsayer with the sort of background I’ve just sketched out would be well prepared to offer sound advice on most of the questions that might perplex a medieval peasant, merchant, baron or king. Nor, of course, would someone so trained be restricted in his choice of active measures to incantations alone. This is arguably why so many medieval kings and barons had professional sorcerers and soothsayers on staff, despite the fulminations of all the dominant religions of the age, and why wizards less adept at social climbing found a bumper crop of customers lower down the social ladder.

The origins of this profession are, if anything, even more interesting. Pierre Riché’s useful study Education and Culture in the Barbarian West showed in detail how the educational institutions of the late Roman world imploded as their economic and social support systems crumpled beneath them. In Europe – matters were a little more complex in the Muslim world – they were replaced by a monastic system of education that, in its early days, fixated almost entirely on scriptural and theological studies, and by methods of training young aristocrats that fixated even more tightly on the skills of warfare and government. Only among families with a tradition of classical letters did some semblance of the old curriculum stay in use, and Riché notes that while that custom continued, those who learned philosophy, one of the core studies in that curriculum, were widely suspected of dabbling in magic. It’s not too hard to connect the dots and see how a subculture of freelance intellectuals, equipped with unusual knowledge and a willingness to stray well outside the boundaries set by the culture of their time, would have emerged from that context.

All this may seem worlds away from the issues raised earlier in this essay, but there’s a direct connection. The wizards of the early Middle Ages were individuals who recognized the value of certain branches of knowledge and certain attitudes toward the world that were profoundly unpopular in their time, and took it on themselves to preserve the knowledge, cultivate the attitudes, and make connections with those who shared the same sense of values,or at least were interested in making practical use of the skills that the knowledge and attitides made possible. There was no mass movement to support the survival of classical science in the sixth and seventh centuries CE, and no hope of starting one; the mass movements of the time – when they weren’t simply stampeding mobs trying to get out of the way of the latest round of barbarian invasions – embraced the opposite opinion. How much of a role wizards might have played in the transmission of classical learning to the future is anyone’s guess, since records of their activities are very sparse, but it’s clear that they were an intellectual resource much used during an age when few other resources of the kind were available.

I’ve come to think that a strategy of the same kind, if a bit more tightly focused, might well be one of the best options just now for an age when very few people are willing to make meaningful preparations for a difficult future. Certain branches of practical knowledge, thoroughly learned and just as thoroughly practiced by a relatively modest number of people, could be deployed in a hurry to help mitigate the impact of the energy shortages, economic dislocations, and systems breakdowns that are tolerably certain to punctuate the years ahead of us. I’m sure my readers have their own ideas about the kind of knowledge that might be best suited to that context, but I have a particular suggestion to offer: the legacy of the apppropriate technology movement of the 1970s.

This was not simply a precursor of today’s sustainability projects, and the differences are important. The appropriate tech movement, with some exceptions, tended to avoid the kind of high-cost, high-profile eco-chic projects so common today. Much of it focused instead on simple technologies that could be put to work by ordinary people without six-figure incomes, doing the work themselves, using ordinary tools and readily available resources. Most of these technologies were evolved by basement-shop craftspeople and small nonprofits working on shoestring budgets, and ruthlessly field-tested by thousands of people who built their own versions in their backyards and wrote about the results in the letters column of Mother Earth News.

The resulting toolkit was a remarkably well integrated, effective, and cost-effective set of approaches that individuals, families, and communities could use to sharply reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and the industrial system in general. It was not, I should probably point out, particularly esthetic, unless you happen to like a lively fusion of down home funk, late twentieth century garage-workshop, and hand-dyed back-to-the-land hippie paisley; those of my readers who own houses and are still fretting about their resale value (and haven’t yet figured out that this figure will be denominated in imaginary numbers for the next several decades at least) will likely run screaming from it; those who were incautious enough to buy homes in suburban developments with restrictive covenants will have to step carefully, at least until their neighbors panic. Apartment dwellers will have to pick and choose a bit; on the other hand, those of my readers who will spend time living in tarpaper shacks before the Great Recession ends – and I suspect a fair number of people will have that experience, as a fair number of people did the last time the economy lost touch with reality and imploded the way it’s currently doing – will find that very nearly everything the appropriate tech people did will be well within their reach.

What’s included in the package I’m discussing? Intensive organic gardening, for starters, with its support technologies of composting, green manure, season extenders, and low-tech food preservation and storage methods; small-scale chicken and rabbit raising, and home aquaculture of fish; simple attached solar greenhouses, which make the transition from food to energy by providing heat for homes as well as food for the table; other retrofitted passive solar heating technologies; solar water heating; a baker’s dozen or more methods for conserving hot or cool air with little or no energy input; and a good deal more. None of it will save the world, if that hackneyed phrase means maintaining business as usual on some supposedly sustainable basis; what it can do is make human life in a world suffering from serious energy shortages and economic troubles a good deal less traumatic and more livable.

This is the suite of technologies I studied as a budding appropriate-tech geek during the late 1970s and 1980s, and it was central to the training program that earned me my Master Conserver certificate in 1985. One teaches what one knows, and I’m going to take the gamble of devoting much of the next year or so of Archdruid Report posts to the details. My hope is that I can encourage at least a few of my readers to follow the very old example mentioned earlier, and become the green wizards of the decades ahead of us.

For that, I have come to think, is one of the things the soon-to-be-deindustrializing world most needs just now: green wizards. By this I mean individuals who are willing to take on the responsibility to learn, practice, and thoroughly master a set of unpopular but valuable skills – the skills of the old appropriate tech movement – and share them with their neighbors when the day comes that their neighbors are willing to learn. This is not a subject where armchair theorizing counts for much – as every wizard’s apprentice learns sooner rather than later, what you really know is measured by what you’ve actually done – and it’s probably not going to earn anyone a living any time soon, either, though it can help almost anyone make whatever living they earn go a great deal further than it might otherwise go. Nor, again, will it prevent the unraveling of the industrial age and the coming of a harsh new world; what it can do, if enough people seize the opportunity, is make the rough road to that new world more bearable than it will otherwise be.

I also propose to have a certain amount of fun with the wizard archetype in the posts to come. Still, that’s an example of what the Renaissance alchemist Michael Maier called a lusus serius, a game played in earnest, a dead serious joke. The present time, as I’ve suggested here more than once, has plenty of features in common with the twilight years of classical civilization, the age that gave rise to the legends of Merlin and Arthur, and made it in retrospect a poetic necessity for the greatest of all legendary kings to be advised by the greatest of all legendary wizards.

Thus there’s a certain lively irony in the fact that, back in the days when I was sanding blades for a homebuilt wind turbine and studying the laws of thermodynamics in Master Conserver classes in the meeting room of the old Seattle Public library, one of my favorite bits of music was Al Stewart’s Merlin’s Time:

Who would walk the stony roads of Merlin’s time,
And keep the watch along the borderline?
And who would hear the legends passed in song and rhyme
Upon the shepherd pipes of Merlin’s time?

In its own way, that’s the question that upcoming posts will pose to my readers; we’ll see what the answer turns out to be.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Pathless Land

The discussion of revitalization movements and fantasies of collective redemption over the last two weeks here on The Archdruid Report had an interesting though by no means unexpected result. Several people asked me whether I thought it might be possible to harness some movement of the same broad sort to get people to do the things they need to do to get ready for peak oil.

This is hardly a new idea, of course. Back in the late 1990s, when the first peak oil email lists were taking shape, the idea of organizing a peak oil movement on the large scale came up for discussion now and again, and some attempts were made, though none of them managed to find much of an audience. More recently, toward the middle of the last decade, the Post Carbon Institute launched a network of relocalization groups, which flourished for a while and then suddenly folded for reasons I’ve never seen discussed. Over the last few years, in its turn, the Transition Town movement has made its own transition from a college project to an international network helping communities put together plans to cope with a future of energy scarcity and strict carbon-footprint limits.

It’s fair to say that none of these was or is a mass movement of the kind I was discussing; the earlier examples belong on the same list of would-be mass movements that never got off the ground as, say, Technocracy, while the last is still very much in the early phases of its trajectory, early enough that its final destination is anybody’s guess. Still, it’s easy to see why the idea of a grand collective movement in the direction of sustainability is so appealing to so many people.

To begin with, the failure of the established order of industrial society, and of the political classes who manage it, is becoming hard to ignore. Consider the way that the world’s political leaders have reacted to the implosion of the global economy, or the way that the US government and BP management have reacted to the ongoing death by oil of the Gulf of Mexico: in each case, it’s a broken-record sequence of understating the problem, trying to manage appearances, getting caught flatfooted by events, and struggling to load the blame for yet another round of failures onto anybody within reach. Rinse and repeat a few times, and even the most diehard supporters of the status quo start wishing that somebody, somewhere, would stand up and demonstrate some actual leadership.

At the same time, for those of us who have been trying to get the message of peak oil out for the last decade or more, the spreading cracks in the great wall of denial can give rise to a certain intoxication. When pundits insist that there’s enough oil in current reserves to last 800 years , or that oil discoveries have more than kept pace with extraction rates all along, or that the only limits to the amount of oil we can get out of the earth are economic – all of which statements have appeared in the media in recent weeks, and all of which can easily be disproved by readily available figures or, in the last case, by plain common sense – it’s hard to miss the desperation in their words. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” Gandhi said; at this point they’re fighting, and some of the peak oil community are starting to think about what victory might look like.

That’s a fair question. What would victory look like? Imagine for a moment that the arrival of permanently scarce energy became as much a part of the conventional wisdom in the decades ahead of us as it became, however briefly, in the 1970s. It would be easy enough to blow the dust off the plans and dreams of that latter decade, and there’s arguably a real point to doing that, but the world has changed; the reserves of fossil fuels that planners in the Seventies counted on to cushion the descent into a low-energy future have been severely depleted in the years since, and there are twice as many people on this small and crowded planet as there were back then. By any realistic measure, we’re in a heap of trouble, and the hope that a mass movement might yield enough enthusiasm and commitment to deal with that heap is an easy one to understand.

Still, that hope isn’t one I share. Quite the contrary, I’ve come to think that the rise of a mass movement centered on peak oil – whether or not it turns into the sort of revitalization movement discussed in the last two posts – might well put paid to any hope of avoiding a profoundly unwelcome future. The best way to explain that sense is an indirect one, and so I trust my readers will have patience with a divagation in the direction of Philadelphia.

I was there a little while back, speaking at a conference at a posh downtown hotel. I’ll spare you the details; it was one of those gigs that peak oil speakers dread, the sort of event where you’ve got twelve minutes in a panel discussion to explain why the future everyone has taken for granted isn’t going to happen, and why whatever plans they happen to be promoting need to make room for economic and social collapse, mass impoverishment, and the whole cheerful landscape of a deindustrializing world. Well before your twelve minutes are up, it’s clear that you might as well have spent the time reciting texts from the Iguvine Tablets in the original Umbrian; there’s a little polite applause, the audience asks a few polite questions, a few people come up to thank you for your speech, and none of the attendees mentions peak oil in your hearing again.

Afterwards, I ducked out of the hotel and walked the streets of downtown Philly, partly to find some comfortable dive for dinner, but mostly to shake off the sense of intellectual mummification that events like that always leave behind. A session of t’ai chi on the grass in Rittenhouse Square startled the pigeons and a couple of transients but left me feeling a good deal less numbed, and I did indeed find a comfortable dive (and had a good dinner there a bit later), but what turned the day around was a couple of lines written in fading gold lettering on a window in an otherwise undistinguished block of shops and offices, announcing to the world the Philadelphia branch of the United Lodge of Theosophists.

I suspect this phrase will mean nothing to most of my readers. The original Theosophical Society (TS) was founded back in 1875 in New York City by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian emigré, and a small circle of American mystics and occultists. Its purpose was to provide an alternative to the dogmatic religion and equally dogmatic scientific materialism of the day, and it offered public lectures and instruction at a time when most other esoteric spiritual groups kept their teachings hidden away behind tightly locked lodge doors. Other groups had tried to do the same thing in various ways for decades beforehand, but for some reason Theosophy caught on where these others failed, and found itself with local groups and a mass following on four continents.

Blavatsky, who by this time was the unquestioned leader of the movement, then found herself facing the same predicament that confronts every spiritual movement that attracts a large following Of those who joined the Society, only a small percentage were actually interested in studying the philosophy, practicing the spiritual practices, and making use of the rest of what it had to teach; the majority wanted to participate in it for what amounted to social reasons. She responded by reorganizing the TS, creating an Esoteric Section for those willing to commit to daily meditation and study, and using the rest of the Society as an outer court where those interested solely in the social aspects of a mass movement could take part and contribute whatever they could.

That structure stayed in place until Blavatsky died in 1891. The Society broke apart in the years that followed; most of the Theosophical groups that emerged from the confusion kept the same policy, but he largest of the fragments did not. Headed by suffragist and Fabian socialist Annie Besant, this branch – called the Adyar TS, after the location of its headquarters – pursued a mass following, and turned into a full-blown revitalization movement when Besant decided that a boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti, the son of a Hindu servant at the Adyar headquarters, was the next World Teacher, the successor of Buddha and Christ, who would lead the world to salvation under the banner of Theosophy.

In the short term, it was a hugely popular move; the claim that the Adyar TS had a messiah on hand who would shortly launch his career of redemption proved to be a membership magnet of immense power. Chapters of the Order of the Star in the West, an organization launched in 1911 to promote Krishnamurti, sprang up like mushrooms across much of the world. After the First World War, the implosion of Europe’s global ascendancy and the betrayal of wartime promises made the dream of a redeemer profoundly appealing. Meanwhile Krishnamurti grew to manhood, trained and prompted for the role he was expected to play. Finally, in 1929, a huge rally of the Order was summoned to be present as Krishnamurti formally began his career as World Teacher.

I sometimes wonder what must have gone through his mind as he mounted the podium that day and looked down at the ocean of upturned faces gazing at him in adoration. My readers might wish to imagine themselves in the same position. There you are, with tens of thousands of people eagerly awaiting your least word, and hundreds of thousands more around the world longing to receive the message you are about to give them. Will you call them to manifest your highest ideals, will you tell them to fulfill your basest desires, or will it be, as it usually is, a bit of both?

It’s an intoxicating image, but there’s another side to it. Not one of those tens of thousands of people has to be there; not one of the hundreds of thousands is required to listen. They are there for reasons of their own, reasons that mingle high ideals and base desires in the usual human proportions, and if the ideals or the desires you call on them to pursue are far enough from theirs that they see no way of fulfilling their own agendas by helping yours, they will turn away and go looking for another movement that shows more promise of giving them what they want. That’s the trap that waits for every mass movement that tries to change society, because the ideals and desires of the majority define the structure of society as it is; a would-be mass movement that pursues a different path will reliably find itself failing to attract members, while a mass movement that reshapes its message to attract a large audience will inevitably turn into a mechanism for replicating the existing order of things.

Whether this is what went through Krishnamurti’s mind is anyone’s guess, as he refused to talk about the experience later. Still, by the time he descended from the podium, the elaborate fantasy Besant and her colleagues had built around him, and the revitalization movement that had grown up around that, were blown to smithereens. Truth, he told his listeners, is a pathless land; no messiah can take you there, or lift the burden of thinking for yourself off your shoulders. In front of them all, he disavowed his role as World Teacher and dissolved the Order of the Star in the West. The mass movement popped like a bubble, and all the Theosophical organizations suffered huge drops in membership; Besant’s career was effectively over, though she lingered on for a few more years. Ironically, Krishnamurti went on to a long career as a spiritual teacher, but he steadfastly refused to allow any organization to form around him, and I don’t know of anybody who claims that he really was the World Teacher.

The peak oil scene is a long way from finding its Krishnamurti, or even its Annie Besant. Still, the future after peak oil is also a pathless land, and as the reality of limits to growth goes mainstream and peak oil speakers find audiences more responsive than the one I faced in Philadelphia, the trap that waits for all mass movements waits for it as well. A survey just splashed over the American media points up the difficulty: a large majority of Americans surveyed agreed that the energy situation was a crisis and something needs to be done, but very few of them were willing to accept a solution that involved gasoline prices going up. The temptation to promise people that they can have a green energy future and still fill their tanks for less than $3 a gallon will be immense; those groups that do this can count on being flooded with recruits, while those that admit that in any realistic green energy future, most Americans will no longer have cars at all, will find themselves in the same sort of situation I encountered at the conference in Philadelphia, trying to talk to people for whom the future might as well be written in Umbrian.

Now it’s easy to insist that getting people in the door is the important thing, and once they’re in the movement they can be led gradually to more accurate views. The history of mass movements shows otherwise with depressing consistency. The leaders who imagine themselves drawing the masses step by step to some better set of beliefs and behaviors generally find out the hard way, as their predecessors did, that they are the ones who will be drawn step by step into whatever set of beliefs and behaviors will maximize the size and influence of the movement they head – which amounts to whatever set of beliefs and behaviors the masses want them to have. We’ve already seen some parts of the peak oil scene moving in this direction; the insistence that an optimism that will attract crowds is more important than a realism that can guide a meaningful response comes to mind in this context.

The pursuit of a mass movement is not the only option we’ve got, fortunately, and other options – one of which I plan on exploring in detail in next week’s post, and in the weeks to come – offer a great deal more potential for viable change. Still, one of the simplest was on display in the quiet little library and meeting room of the Philadelphia United Lodge of Theosophists. The ULT stayed aloof from Annie Besant’s shenanigans, and has quietly continued to follow the original plan of the movement, offering lectures and opportunities for study to those who are willing to learn. I went there after dinner and took in a talk and a lively discussion about certain points of Theosophical teaching, and had a fine time. Druidry and Theosophy are by no means the same thing, but there’s enough common ground to make for congenial conversation, and you don’t come through the kind of traditional occult training I had back in my misspent youth without knowing your way around Theosophical ideas. When I walked back to the hotel that evening, the day felt a lot less like a waste.

Still, the moment that remains with me happened before the meeting, while I was chatting with some of the Theosophists. One elderly African-American man mentioned that a few years back, considering the state of the world, he and his wife had decided to give up their car. Of course, he admitted, it involved some changes, but Philly public transit got them where they needed to go, and he found that doing without the costs of car ownership left him with so much money left over at the end of the month that at first he kept checking to make sure he’d paid all his bills.

I thought about him as I took the train home the next day, and I also thought about the Amish family seated behind me on the train, father and the boys in white shirts and black hats, mother and the girls in bonnets and ankle-length dresses, talking quietly to each other in the German dialect everyone around here calls Pennsylvania Dutch. The lesson I took from them is that it’s the choices of individuals that ultimately make any difference that’s going to be made. It’s tempting to think that the social pressure of a mass movement can lead people to make changes they aren’t willing to make on their own, but in practice, that’s not the way it works; instead, what generally happens is that sooner or later, those who hoped to lead the world to some shining future en masse find themselves sitting in the smoking crater left by the total implosion of their dreams, wondering what happened. It would be unfortunate, to use no stronger word, to have that sort of fiasco replicated in the peak oil movement.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Waiting for the Millennium

Part Two: The Limits of Magic

The first half of this essay sketched out the unfamiliar terrain that’s beginning to open out in front of the peak oil community as the concept of hard energy limits seeps back out into public awareness, after thirty years of exile in the Siberia of the imagination where our society imprisons its unwelcome truths. One probable feature of that landscape is the rise of revitalization movements among people in the industrial world. Last week I talked about those movements in general terms, but it’s possible to explain them a good deal more clearly by saying that revitalization movements try to cope with drastic and unwelcome social change through ritual action.

“Ritual is poetry in the world of acts,” according to the influential Druid writer and teacher Ross Nichols; in less gnomic form, ritual is action done for its symbolic meaning rather than its practical value. Most social movements combine ritual with practical action in various ways. What sets revitalization movements apart is that they emerge when practical responses to a changing world are either unworkable or unthinkable, and so the plan of action they offer is entirely a matter of ritual; even those actions that have practical aspects are done because of their symbolic power.

The wild card here is that ritual can have remarkable properties when it’s applied in the right way, for the right purposes. This is the secret of magic – the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, to repeat Dion Fortune’s definition. If what you’re trying to do depends on the choices of conscious beings, magic works. Rosie the Riveter, who’s been discussed in these essays more than once, is an example of successful magic. “We can do it,” her most famous poster said, and millions of American women discovered that they could; housewives who had never handled a machine tool in their lives headed off to factories to build airplanes, tanks, and cannons at a pace that exceeded even the most sanguine hopes of Allied planners, and flooded battlefields around the world with a tidal wave of munitions that swept the Axis powers into history’s dumpster.

For an even more extreme example, consider the trajectory that created the most dangerous of those same Axis powers. Not much more than a decade before the Second World War began, Germany was a textbook example of a failed state, an economic basket case with a discredited political establishment, riven by internal struggles that hovered close to the brink of civil war. Reasonable methods applied by reasonable men had failed to do anything about these problems. Hitler was not a reasonable man; he understood, better than nearly anyone else at the time, the power of the nonrational to shape human thought and action, and his response to Germany’s disintegration amounted to government by magic. Germany became one vast ritual theater, flooded with symbols, incantations and ceremony. Reasonable men predicted that he would be out of a job in six months; six years later, in total control of a tautly disciplined nation and one of the world’s most fearsome war machines, he declared war on most of the planet, and it took another six years and total defeat to break his grip on the German people.

There’s a rich irony that one of the few contemporaries of Hitler who could match his understanding of the nonrational was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi was not a reasonable man, either, but his mind rose as far above the level of reason as Hitler’s sank below it. In many ways, the task of prying loose “the jewel in the crown” of the British Empire from its overlords was a more astonishing feat than pulling Germany out of its post-1918 death spiral, and Gandhi did the job without any of the institutional tools Hitler relied on to work his magic. The spectacle of the largest empire in human history forced to submit to the gentle will of a single elderly mystic may be taken as an example of the positive potential of magic; the cataclysmic failure of the Twelve Year Reich show just as clearly its potential downside.

The difference in results unfolded partly from the moral distance between the two enchanters. Ethics are as important in magic as sanitation is in surgery, and for the same reason; neglect either one and you can count on things going septic. Still, there are also differences of means and ends, and these bear directly on the theme of this essay. In order to accomplish his purpose, Gandhi needed only to affect the thoughts and decisions of people in Britain, India, and any other countries that might influence one or the other. His work, in other words, was ultimately a matter of causing changes in consciousness, and that was something that symbolic action could and did accomplish.

Hitler, for his part, started out working on similar lines. To bring his vision of a triumphant Germany into reality, he had to cause changes in the consciousness of the German people, on the one hand, and in the minds of the leaders of other European nations on the other, and the magical knowledge he got on the fringes of the Vienna occult scene proved more than adequate to that task. Once he went past those goals to pursue the fantasy of military conquest, though, he passed out of the range of effects that could be accomplished by changes in consciousness, and into a realm that depended on the hard material realities of oil, steel, and geography. Once he crossed that line he was doomed; magic can transform a failed state into a unified nation, but it can’t make a world empire in an industrial age out of a modestly sized European state with few resources, no petroleum, and no defensible borders.

All this is simply to say that magic, like any other tool, is very well suited to carry out some jobs and completely useless for others. If the troubles faced by an individual or a community are primarily a function of consciousness, magical methods can be extraordinary effective in dealing with them. If the troubles that have to be faced has its roots in the world of matter, though, there are hard limits to what magic can do. You can’t use incantations and rituals, for example, to put oil in the ground if it was never there in the first place, or if the oil fields have already been pumped dry. You can’t even use magic to run a successful coal-to-liquids program if the net energy of the technology you’re using is too low; Hitler’s regime did its level best to accomplish that, with some of the world’s best scientists and engineers, the substantial coal reserves of occupied Europe, and an unrestricted supply of slave labor – and the Wehrmacht still ran out of fuel.

These examples are particularly relevant to the present, because the movements led by Hitler and Gandhi both had plenty in common with revitalization movements. Both emerged in response to drastic social stresses resistant to any more practical or reasonable approach – the post-Versailles near-collapse of Germany on the one hand, the economic and social burdens of British imperial rule over India on the other. Both drew heavily on symbolism, incantation, ritual, and the rest of the hardware in the magician’s toolkit, and both became mass movements characterized by the wild enthusiasm and millenarian expectations common to revitalization movements everywhere. The success of Gandhi’s project and the failure of Hitler’s thus points up, among other things, the difference between what a revitalization movement can do and what it can’t.

That’s of crucial importance just now, because the thing that most people in the industrial world are going to want most in the very near future is something that neither a revitalization movement nor anything else can do. We are passing from an age of unparalleled abundance to an age of scarcity, economic contraction, and environmental payback. As the reality of peak oil goes mainstream and the end of abundance becomes impossible to ignore, most people in the industrial world will begin to flail about with rising desperation for anything that will bring the age of abundance back. Even those who insist they despise that age and everything it stands for have in many cases already shown an eagerness to cling to as many of its benefits as they themselves find appealing.

The difficulty, of course, is that the end of the age of abundance isn’t happening because of changes in consciousness; it’s happening because of the laws of physics. The abundance we’ve all grown up thinking as normal was there only because a handful of nations burned their way through the Earth’s store of fossil carbon at breakneck speed. Most of the fossil fuel reserves that can be gotten cheaply and quickly have already been extracted and burnt; the dregs that remain – high-sulfur oil, tar sands, brown coal, and the like – yield less energy after what’s needed to extract them is taken into account, and impose steep ecological costs as well; renewables and other alternative energy resources have problems of their own, and have proved unable to take up more than a small fraction of the slack. These limitations are not subject to change, or even to negotiation; they define a predicament that we will all have to live with, one way or another, for a very long time to come.

What this means is that the fundamental causes of the crisis of modern industrial civilization are not susceptible to magic. We can’t conquer the future under the banner of abundance any more than Hitler could conquer the world under the banner of National Socialism, and for much the same reason: the physical resources to win such a war simply don’t exist. Now it’s true that we could respond to the present crisis by changes in consciousness, using the tools of magic among many others, but those responses would require us to accept the end of the age of abundance and the loss of essentially all of its benefits. That’s something very few people today are willing to do.

This is why I mentioned earlier that revitalization movements emerge when all practical responses to a changing world are either unworkable or unthinkable. Modern industrial civilization has wedged itself into just such a situation; those responses our political leaders and the bulk of our populations are willing to think about are unworkable, and those responses that might actually keep things from going haywire in fairly dramatic ways are unthinkable. That leaves ritual as the one remaining option.

If that option could be used in the right way, to change consciousness so that people learned how to think about the unthinkable, accept the end of the age of abundance, recognize the huge gap between what we currently think we need and what we actually need, and retool their lives and expectations to fit a post-abundance world, it could accomplish extraordinary things. The problem here is that it’s not usually possible to get people to use ritual action to achieve something they desperately don’t want to achieve. Magic, again, is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will; if the will isn’t there, neither is the magic.

That leaves the foredoomed but profoundly seductive attempt to make the physical world obey the desires of the majority of industrial humanity by means of ritual action. The Sarah Palin fans chanting “Drill, baby, drill,” as though drilling a hole in the ground magically obliged the Earth to put oil at the bottom of it, are taking tentative steps in that direction. So are the people who insist that we can keep on enjoying the trappings of the age of abundance if we only support a technology, or join a movement, or adopt an ideology, or – well, the list is already long, and it’s going to get much longer in the near future. My guess is that we’ve got a couple of years at most before somebody puts the right ingredients together in the right way, and the first fully fledged revitalization movement begins attracting a mass following with its strident denunciations of the existing order of things and its promise of a bright future reached by what amounts to a sustained exercise in magic.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention will recognize that this doesn’t mean people will be putting on robes and funny hats and brandishing ornate wands while intoning the names of spirits in whose existence they don’t actually believe. Just as magical incantations in the peak oil scene these days have replaced the old barbarous names with such words of power as “hydrogen economy,” “algal biodiesel,” “advanced petroleum recovery technology” and the like, the rituals that will be practiced by the revitalization movements to come may take the form of community building exercises, protest marches, outdoor festivals, and campaigns for political office. They may even include sensible steps such as weatherstripping homes and building solar greenhouses. What defines an act as ritual, remember, is that it’s done for symbolic rather than practical reasons; weatherstripping a house is a practical action when it’s done for the practical reason of saving a few dozen dollars a year on heat bills, but it becomes a ritual action when it’s done under the conviction that steps of this nature can ward off the end of the age of abundance.

This is why I suggested at the end of the first half of this post that an effective counterspell against the misplaced magical thinking at the core of the coming revitalization movements is the recognition that there is no bright future ahead. Those words conjured up some remarkably intense reactions among readers of this blog, and that was exactly what they were supposed to do. The sentence needs to be understood with a certain degree of subtlety, though. It does not predict a future of unbroken misery, or claim that there will be no gains to measure against the immense losses most of us will suffer.

What it means is that the core faith of the age that is passing, the faith that the future will be better than the past or present, has become a delusion. In almost every sense, the future ahead of us will be worse than the present and the recent past The vast majority of us will be much poorer than we have been; many of us will have to worry at least now and then about gettng enough food to stay alive; most of us will have to do without adequate medical care; most of us will not have the opportunity to retire; most of us will die at least a little sooner than we otherwise would have done. The security most of us take for granted, with police and firefighters on call and the rule of law acknowledged even when it’s not equally enforced, will in many places become a fading memory; many areas that have been at peace for a long time will have to cope with the ghastly realities of domestic insurgency or war. All these things will be part of everyday life for the vast majority of us for decades, and on the other side of it lies, not some imagined golden age, but a temporary respite of stabilization and partial recovery that might last for half a century at most before the next wave of crises hits.

This is the way civilizations decline and fall. It’s our bad luck to be living at the dawn of the second great wave of decline to hit Western civilization – the first, for those who haven’t been keeping track of their history, began in 1914 and ended in the early 1950s – and this wave will probably be a great deal worse than the first, if only because it comes right after the peak of conventional petroleum production and thus has to face a decline in net energy per capita on top of everything else. It’s comforting, and will doubtless be common, to look for scapegoats for the troubled times ahead, but it seems more useful to recognize that this is simply what happens at this point on the curve of history’s wheel.

Of all the reactions that the first half of this post fielded, though, the ones that interested me most were those that suggested that having a bright future to reach for is the only thing that gives meaning to life. Fortunately, this isn’t even remotely true. Nearly all of our ancestors lived in times when there was no bright future on the horizon; nearly all of our descendants will experience the same thing. The great majority of the former and, no doubt, of the latter as well, found other reasons for living. That’s an equally viable option right now, given a willingness to think the unthinkable, recognize that the age of abundance is ending, and consider the possibility that doing the right thing in a time of crisis, no matter how uncomfortable or challenging the right thing might be, may be a more potent source of meaning than waiting for magic to make a bright future arrive.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Waiting for the Millennium

Part One: Peak Oil Goes Mainstream

Longtime readers of this blog will recall that one of its central projects early on was an attempt to deconstruct the most deeply entrenched set of myths industrial culture uses to define the future. To borrow a phrase from Carlos Castaneda, the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse were worthy opponents, and I hope the confrontation with them was as educational, and occasionally entertaining, to my readers as it was to me. I’m pleased to say, though, that the dubious choice between a future of endless progress toward some technocratic Utopia and a future of sudden cataclysmic collapse into some romantic Utopia has lost much of its grip on the peak oil scene.

That’s not to say these particular narratives have gone away completely. I don’t recall the last time a week passed without at least one message in my inbox claiming that I’m all wrong and humanity will keep on marching onward and upward to a destiny among the stars, and at least one more claiming that I’m all wrong and industrial civilization will blow itself to smithereens at some vague but imminent point in the very near future. Still, such comments no longer make up most of the responses to each week’s post here, as they once did. The Archdruid Report was only one of many voices in the conversation that midwifed that change, of course, but I like to think that it helped.

That shift needed to happen, not least because today’s peak oil movement may be standing on the brink of a momentous shift very few of us are expecting. For just over a decade now, since the first peak oil activists blew the dust off M. King Hubbert’s predictions and realized that they made a great deal more sense than the easy optimism of the cornucopians, people concerned about peak oil have daydreamed of a future when the rest of the world would finally get around to noticing that you can’t extract an infinite amount of oil from a finite planet, and that technological, economic, and social arrangements predicated on endless supplies of cheap oil might be a good deal less clever than they looked. Very few of us, though, have really taken that possibility seriously, which makes it all the more ironic that peak oil may be on the brink of going mainstream in a big way.

Place the peak oil movement in its context and the dynamic is hard to miss. Fifteen years ago the idea of peak oil was so far off the radar screens that serious books on energy published by academic publishers – Janet Ramage’s Energy: A Guidebook (Oxford University Press, 1997) is a good example – no longer remembered that oil production would crest long before the last barrel was pumped out of the ground. Ten years ago the peak oil movement was the outermost fringe of the fringe, a tiny network of retired petroleum geologists and engineers crunching numbers to predict the timing of an event most experts claimed would never happen. Five years ago the first really good books on the subject – Kenneth Deffeyes’ Hubbert’s Peak, Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over, James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, and a few others – were in print, and denunciations were beginning to issue forth from pundits who, until that time, had considered the peak oil movement to be beneath their notice.

Over the last year or so, the journey from fringe to mainstream has shifted into high gear. Peak oil has become a known quantity in the financial media, with a growing number of market pundits treating it as a real and inevitable phenomenon; blue-ribbon panels of various kinds are advising various governments that they really had better start paying attention to the future of petroleum; the US military has given dwindling energy supplies a place high up on the list of imminent threats to America’s security; even the world of haute culture, so often last in line to notice even the biggest changes sweeping through society, has been served up with a jumbo helping of peak oil courtesy of the Dark Mountain Project. All that remains is for the political leaders of an industrial nation to start talking about peak oil, and to judge from some of Barack Obama’s recent press conferences about the BP oil spill, that day may not be too far away.

What will happen then? It’s interesting to note that slightly muted versions of the two mythic narratives I discussed earlier in this post play a large role in speculations about the impact of peak oil going public. Some people – not many of them, but there are some – still cling to the hope that the people of the world’s industrial societies will take a deep breath, face up to the challenge of peak oil, and rescue the project of progress and the hope of brighter futures ad infinitum. Others, rather more of them, are convinced that a public announcement that the age of oil is ending will result in mass panic and the collapse of public order in an orgy of rioting, looting, and target practice with live ammo.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that neither of these is particularly likely. A great deal depends on the circumstances, to be sure, but I suspect the first reaction will have a good deal in common with the oil shock of the 1970s, when the United States passed its own Hubbert peak and a nation used to limitless cheap energy had to face shortages and soaring prices. When that happened, some people buckled down and got to work; others panicked to one degree or another, though the rioting mobs of survivalist fantasy were in notably short supply; still others dismissed the entire thing as a Communist, liberal, conservative, or Fascist plot – I don’t think anybody but the Amish missed being blamed for the energy crises of the 1970s – and something close to a majority just shrugged or grumbled, according to temperament, and muddled through.

In the midst of these disparate reactions, a great deal of constructive work got done, and it’s arguable that even now the alternative energy scene hasn’t caught up to the point that the leading edge of the appropriate technology movement had reached when funding cuts and ultracheap oil brought the boom down on the whole thing in the early 1980s. If we get a similar muddle of disparate reactions, another round of equally constructive work is potentially within reach. Of course there will probably also be another round, on a larger and louder scale, of the debate between the myths of progress and apocalypse mentioned earlier in this post, and there will doubtless be plenty of flailing as people work their way through the five stages of peak oil – those are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and getting off your rump and doing something, in case you didn’t know.

Still, it’s also uncomfortably possible that we could also get something a good deal more destructive than what emerged out of the Seventies. For all the troubles of that decade, energy resources were still relatively plentiful and the economies of the industrial nations were far less topheavy with financial hallucinations, profiteering, and outright graft than they have since become. The limits to growth were in sight, but they had not yet begun to clamp down hard, and energy researchers could reasonably trace a curve of transition that could get the world’s industrial nations to sustainability without massive social and economic trauma.

That possibility was foreclosed when the leaders of the major industrial nations embraced short term politics instead of meaningful planning in the years right after 1980. At this point, the resources that might have powered a transition to sustainability have been burnt to fuel one last orgy of conspicuous consumption, and the consequences of that final spree, combined with epic economic mismanagement and a good solid helping of chicanery and outright fraud, have tipped the industrial nations of the world over into what promises to be a long and difficult period of economic malfunction.

When familiar myths fail and life gets difficult, in turn, the results rather too often include a form of collective flight into fantasy well known to sociologists and students of history. Think of cargo cults, Ghost Dancers, Americans waiting in a suburban Chicago backyard to be taken off the planet by the Space Brothers, and every other example you recall of people responding to a difficult situation by a leap of faith to a farther shore that didn’t happen to be there. Now think about it again, remembering that this time the motivating factors may well include the symbols and slogans and passionate hopes that matter most to you.

The standard jargon for phenomena of this kind is revitalization movements. They happen when a society is hit by repeated troubles that cut straight to the core of its identity and values. In such times, when existing institutions fail and the collective foundations of meaning crack, there’s a large demand for some new vision of destiny that will make sense of the troubles and offer a way past them to some brighter future. The economics of popular belief being what they are, that demand very quickly finds an ample supply.

Revitalization movements, like new cars, come with standard features and a range of optional gewgaws that can be added on to suit the tastes of the buyer. The standard features include a thorough critique of the existing order of society, which is meant to show that the troubles have occurred because either the people who have suffered from them, or some other group that’s to blame for them, have misbehaved and are being punished; a vision of a Utopian future that will arrive right after the troubles if the right things are done; and a straightforward plan of action to make the transition from the troubles to the Utopian future. The problem is that the plan of action can’t actually deliver the goods; that’s what defines something as a revitalization movement rather than, say, an ordinary movement seeking social change. Revitalization movements emerge when all the practical options for dealing with a crisis are either unworkable or unthinkable.

The optional features range all over the map from the harmless to the horrific. A focus on purification, for example, is one common optional feature, but purification can mean a great many things. In the Native American revitalization movements of the twentieth century, for example, it usually meant abstaining from alcohol and other toxic products of white culture, and did a great deal to help First Nations communities begin to recover from the ghastly experiences of the previous century. In the European revitalization movements that sprang up in the wake of the Black Death, by contrast, it usually meant getting rid of Jews and other social outsiders who were blamed for spreading the plague, and helped lay the foundation for the witch hunting mania of the following centuries.

It seems uncomfortably likely to me that such movements could be set in motion by the emergence of peak oil as a publicly acknowledged crisis. Tendencies in that direction are already welded firmly in place in popular culture across the industrial world. The Sarah Palin supporters who turned “Drill, baby, drill” into their mantra du jour are engaging in incantation, to be sure, but there’s more to the slogan than a comfortable thoughtstopper; a great many of the people who mouth it believe with all their heart that all we have to do is drill enough wells and we can have all the petroleum we want, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get those wells drilled. That plan of action can’t deliver the goods; they might as well be out there with the cargo cults, building mock airfields on isolated Pacific islands hoping to bring back the DC-3s full of K-rations and cheap trade goods that landed on a hundred archipelagoes during the Second World War. Still, that’s not something they are likely to grasp any time soon; mere reason has essentially no power against a nascent revitalization movement.

The shift from incantation to revitalization movement is under way on the other side of the political spectrum as well, though it hasn’t generally gotten as much traction yet – a reminder that in America, at least, the ideologies of the left these days tend to be favored by the still relatively privileged middle classes, while the working classes that favor ideologies of the right have gotten the short end of the stick for decades. Still, the tendencies are there. Watch the conversations on most reasonably active peak oil forums, and you’re very likely to see people insisting that all of us, or at least a chosen few, can make the transition to a brighter future if only we follow some plan of action they are eager to share. In those conversations, the seeds of the revitalization movements to come are putting out their first tentative shoots.

If those seeds sprout and blossom, keeping a clear mind amid their heady perfume will be a more challenging task than I suspect most of my readers realize. What sets revitalization movements apart from the more incantatory activities of the true believers in progress or apocalypse is that revitalization movements actually buckle down and do something, and tolerably often, at least some of the things they do are worth doing. Hope is an intoxicating drug; hope blended with opportunities for apparently constructive action is an even stronger one; add the emotional lure of belonging, the promise of mutual support and encouragement, and the rush that comes from dropping ordinary concerns for the single-minded pursuit of a shared ideal, and you’ve got an addictive high that’s hard to resist and harder to quit. That’s why revitalization movements so often gather large crowds, and proceed to follow out the consequences of their internal logic to its furthest extreme, no matter how catastrophic the consequences might be.

In the present case, they could be catastrophic indeed. I think most people know in theory about the destination of the road paved with good intentions, but revitalization movements that go awry have a bad habit of putting that theory into practice. Next week, I’ll explore those uncomfortable possibilities in more detail, and in the process, show how the magical thinking that underlies revitalization movements could be put to use in much more constructive ways.

For the moment, though, I want to pass on the counterspell against incantatory thinking that I mentioned at the conclusion of last week’s post. Like the magic spells in fairy tales, it comes with a taboo that limits what you can do with it. The taboo is this: you can use it to guard yourself from incantations, if you think about it and understand it, and you can pass it on to someone else who’s ready to receive and understand it. If you give it to someone who’s not willing to accept it, though, it will cause exactly the flight into incantation and fantasy it’s meant to prevent. Here it is:

There is no brighter future ahead.

Keep it secret; keep it safe. We’ll talk more next week.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Magical Thinking

As I write these words, the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico continues unchecked. It seems almost obscene to suggest that anything positive might come out of an oil spill that is already the largest in US history, and of course it’s true that whatever good might be salvaged from the situation will offer little consolation to the ravaged ecosystems and destroyed communities of the Gulf. Still, as teacher and Foxfire founder Eliot Wigginton noted, learning is only made possible by failure, and a failure this gargantuan and many-sided can at least offer us some pointed lessons for the future.

Most of those, to be sure, should have been obvious a long time ago. The fantasy of technological potency that leads the great majority of Americans, and slightly smaller majorities elsewhere in the industrial world, to think that any imaginable difficulty must have a promptly available technical solution, has been wearing thin for some time. Still, the spectacle of one of the world’s largest oil companies trying to shove chunks of used automobile tire down an undersea gusher in a failed attempt to stanch the flow has enough of a comic opera quality to lead to hard questions about just how well prepared we are to handle the downside of our own technologies once those have been pushed to the wall by the hard limits of geology and physics.

It will take time for those questions to be asked by more than a very small minority, and even longer for the answers to find their way into the collective conversation of our time. Right now, a great many people seem to be stuck in the same kind of unreason that led travelers stranded by the Eyjafjallajokull eruptions earlier this spring to pound their fists on airline employees’ desks and demand that somebody do something to get the ash out of the air. Equally useless demands that BP, or the US government, or somebody, get out there and stop the oil spill right away, have filled the media of late. It seems very hard for many people to grasp that all the possible ways to stop the spill right away have been tried and have failed, and that the one real hope left – the hard work of drilling a relief well next to the one that’s spewing oil into the Gulf, so that cement can be injected far enough down the borehole to matter – can’t be completed before August at the earliest, and could possibly take until the end of the year.

The gap between that bitter reality and the fantasy of instant techno-fulfillment that plays so large a role in the modern mind has been filled, on most peak oil websites, with a flurry of comments proposing a dizzying assortment of impractical gimmicks to deal with the crisis. Perhaps the saddest of these is the insistence, repeated even by people who ought to know better, that the US ought to use a nuclear weapon against the well.

This particular bit of uninspired lunacy takes various forms. Some suggest setting off a warhead at the wellhead; somehow they’ve managed not to notice the impact of the resulting tsunami on all the oil platforms and pipelines in the Gulf, just for starters. Others insist that a warhead ought to be lowered down the well bore; of course this fails to deal with the fact that the bore is jammed with wrecked drilling hardware, not to mention full of hot, sand-laden crude oil blasting up from the depths at a pressure of 13,000 pounds per square inch, not much less than that used in industrial machinery to make water cut holes in solid metal. Still others propose drilling a hole down next to the existing well and putting the warhead down that; here again, by the time a hole wide enough to admit even a small tactical warhead could be drilled to that level, the relief wells now under way will be long finished.

The notion that a nuclear weapon is the answer to BP’s undersea gusher is conclusive evidence, if any more were needed, that reasonable thought has gone right out the window. Admittedly it’s only fair to say that this happened with nuclear weapons a long time ago. To a frightening extent, the US nuclear arsenal has become a phallic talisman of national omnipotence that serves mostly to help Americans distract themselves from the waning of the real foundations of their country’s former hegemony. If that arsenal ever ceases to be militarily useful – and it’s probably a safe bet that China, to name only one likely candidate, has scores of laboratories working right now on technologies to make that happen, paid by the billions a year we spend to import salad shooters and cheap electronics – our national nervous breakdown may be one for the record books.

Still, there’s a sense in which it’s unfair to critique the proponents of nuking BP’s oil well merely because their plan won’t work and could very easily make an already catastrophic situation even worse. These are difficulties in putting the plan into practice, and it’s not supposed to be put into practice. It serves, rather, as an incantation, a way to banish the appalling awareness that neither you, nor I, nor anyone else except the fairly small number people actually struggling to deal with the well, can do anything about it.

Incantations of this sort make up a remarkably large fraction of the talk about peak oil and the future of industrial society these days. Get into an online conversation on the subject, for example, and you can be all but certain that at least one of the people involved will pipe up with a plan to solve it. It doesn’t matter at all that, much more than nine times out of ten, the person proposing the plan is doing nothing to make it happen, and neither is anybody else. The plan is not meant to happen. It’s meant to dispell the profoundly troubling sense that the future is spinning out of control and there’s not actually all that much that we can do about it.

Grand plans of this kind are hardly the only sort of incantation being chanted at the moment. A claim splashed across the cornucopian end of the internet in recent weeks insists that the world has enough readily available crude oil to keep going at the present rate of production for 800 years. To describe this as the end product of a horse’s digestive tract is to insult honest manure; not one scrap of evidence backs such a claim, but then evidence is beside the point when you’re composing an incantation.

The logic that underlies this kind of incantatory communication is often called “magical thinking” nowadays. There’s a deep irony in this phrase, since this kind of thinking is exactly what mages – actual practitioners of magic – don’t do. I’ve generally avoided talking about magic in these essays, but this is a context where that can’t be avoided. I’d like to ask those of my readers who have religious or rationalist objections to magic to keep reading; they may be surprised by some of what follows.

Probably the best place to start that discussion is with an elegant volume that’s sitting on the desk next to my keyboard as I type these words. Scarlet Imprint, a small British magical publisher, has just released an anthology about the crisis of our time titled XVI; students of magical symbolism will recognize this gnomic label as a reference to the sixteenth arcanum of the Tarot, which shows a tower being blown to smithereens. I have an essay in it; so do sixteen other contemporary mages; I’d be indulging in absurdity if I claimed to agree with more than a part of what’s in the book, but one thing not to be found in its pages is the sort of “magical thinking” just mentioned.

There’s a reason for this. One of the most distinguished 20th century theoreticians and practitioners of magic, Dion Fortune, defined magic as “the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.” (If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for making broomsticks fly, you’re beginning to catch on.) The basic tools of the mage are will and imagination; the raw materials he or she works with are symbolism and ritual – “poetry in the realm of acts,” as Fortune’s near-contemporary Ross Nichols defined that last term. The point of magic, as Fortune’s definition suggests, is changing states and contents of consciousness; it can have effects on the material world as well, but that normally involves influencing beings that bridge the gap between mind and matter – you and me, for example.

Exactly what can and can’t be done by way of will and imagination, working through emotionally powerful symbols and ritual psychodrama, is a question on which not all mages agree. Still, I don’t know of anyone in the field who claims to be able to levitate a broom, say, or to do any of the other things that make up the stock in trade of fantasy magicians. If magic instead of science had come out on top in the reality wars of the late Renaissance, we might all be watching movies in which mysterious scientists in white lab coats mutter algebraic formulae, climb astride giant test tubes, and zoom off to the Moon; compare that to real science, and you’ve got some sense of the gap between Harry Potter and real magic.

This is why serious mages generally roll their eyes when somebody comes along and insists that we ought to be able to solve physical problems – for example, shortages of material substances – with what amounts to magic. This happens quite often; I can usually count on hearing from somebody every month or so who thinks that because I’ve written several books on magic, and serve as the presiding officer of a contemporary Druid order, I ought to agree with them that we can conjure some replacement for petroleum out of thin air, or in some other way produce a world much more comfortable than the one we’ve got, by some change in consciousness or other.

They tend to be rather discomfited when I explain to them, as gently as possible, that they’ve made a very elementary mistake in magical theory. The technical term for it is confounding the planes; “the planes of existence,” an old axiom has it, “are discrete and not continuous” – which means in plain English that mind is mind, matter is matter, and making the transition from mind to matter is not an easy, much less an automatic, thing; it has to be done in specific ways, and with careful attention to the very real limits of the material world.

Now this does not mean that magic is useless in the face of the predicament of the industrial world. The problem is that the changes in consciousness that would actually do some good are changes that next to nobody in the industrial world is willing to make: for example, a shift in priorities that deliberately embraces poverty, accepting a rich personal, intellectual, and social life as a substitute for, or even an improvement on, the material extravagance that the industrial nations currently offer their more favored inmates. That change in consciousness is certainly accessible to each and every one of us; human beings just like us have been making it for many thousands of years; but it requires a rare willingness to step outside of the approved habits and ideas of modern industrial cultures. Striking a rebellious pose and claiming originality is very fashionable these days; actually rejecting the conventional wisdom of our time, and thinking thoughts that conflict with those of one’s contemporaries, is less common now than it was in the supposedly conformist Fifties.

I’ve come to suspect that one of the principal reasons for that, and more generally for the remarkable way in which today’s industrial societies are continuing to sleepwalk toward the abyss, is precisely the habit of incantation discussed earlier in this post. The internet is the natural home of incantation; discussions on email lists and online forums, bereft of the subtleties of normal human communication, often turn into a duel of incantations that the loudest and most intransigent voice generally wins.

Now it’s worth noting that incantation is a tool, and like any other tool, it can be used or misused. There are plenty of contexts in which the skillful use of incantations can have beneficial effects. Assure yourself repeatedly that you can accomplish some task that is in fact within your powers, for example, and your odds of accomplishing it go up significantly; assure yourself repeatedly that it’s out of your reach, and your chances of failure do the same. Still, using incantations as a nonchemical tranquilizer to ward off stress, and to assure yourself that everything is fine when everything is not fine, is much more problematic. In a time of crisis when keeping a level head and going on with life is crucial, it can have a valid place, but if it’s being used to drown out the still small voice that warns of approaching danger, it’s an invitation to disaster. In next week’s post, however, I propose to offer a counterspell.