Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pepperspraying The Future

A whiff of pepper spray rising from a suburban big box store, a breathtakingly absurd comment by an American politician, a breathtakingly cynical statement from a Canadian minister: three scraps of data sent whirling down the wind unnoticed by most of today’s disinformation society, which are also three clues to the exceptionally unwelcome future the industrial world is making for itself. Let’s take them one at a time, in reverse order.

On Monday, as a new round of climate change talks got under way in Durban, Canadian environment minister Peter Kent confirmed earlier media reports that Canada will refuse to accept any further cuts in its carbon dioxide output under the Kyoto treaty. Since Canada is one of only two countries on Earth that uses more energy per capita than the United States—an impressive feat, really, when you think about it—you might be tempted to believe that there was room for some modest cuts, but that notion is nowhere in Kent’s view of the universe. Those same media reports claimed that Canada was preparing to extract itself from the Kyoto treaty altogether; Kent dodged that question, but as Bob Dylan sang a good long time ago, you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

The week before, in a debate among candidates for the GOP’s presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich responded to a question about oil supplies by insisting that the United States could easily increase its oil production by four million barrels a day next year, if only those dratted environmentalists in the other party weren’t getting in the way. This absurd claim was quickly and efficiently refuteded by several peak oil writers—Art Berman’s essay over on the Oil Drum is a good example—but outside the peak oil blogosphere, nobody blinked. Never mind that the entire United States only produces 5.9 million barrels a day, that it took twenty years for the Alaska North Slope fields (peak production, 2 million barrels per day) to go from discovery to maximum output, or that the United States has been explored for oil more thoroughly than any other piece of real estate on the planet; the pundits and the public alike nodded and went on to the next question, as though a serious contender for the position of most powerful human being on the planet hadn’t just gone on record claiming that two plus two is whatever you want it to be.

All of which brings us inevitably to a Los Angeles suburb on Thanksgiving, where a woman seems to have peppersprayed her fellow shoppers to get a video game console to put under her Christmas tree.

To be fair, the situation seems to have been a bit more complex than that sounds at first hearing. If you’re still thinking of Thanksgiving Day in America in terms of lavish turkey dinners and visits from relatives, think again. Nowadays it serves mostly to mark the beginning of the year’s big shopping season, and stores on the cutting edge of American marketing open their doors Thanksgiving night to give shoppers their first shot at whatever overpriced gewgaws the media has decreed will be the hot item this year. The store where the pepper spray incident happened was one of these. There, the mob that formed, waiting for the sale to start, turned unruly; there was apparently shoving and shouting, and then the pepper spray came out. According to witnesses, the woman who used it incapacitated enough of the competition to get to one of the video game consoles that were the center of the agitation, hurried off with it to a checkstand, bought the console and got away. Twenty people, some of them children, needed treatment by medics at the scene.

A fair amount of self-important clucking in the American media followed the incident, though I don’t think anyone quite had the bad taste to point out that at least this year nobody was trampled to death by mobs of shoppers—yes, this happens every few years. Stephen Colbert, as usual, landed one in the bull’s-eye by pointing out that the incident would make a great video game. He’s right enough that I wouldn’t be the least surprised if Black Friday, in which shoppers punch, spray, stab, and shoot each other to get choice gifts for Christmas, turns out to be the hot new video game sensation next year, and no doubt inspires pepper sprayings and tramplings of its own.

What all these three news stories have in common is that they display an attitude—it could as well be described as a belief, or even a religion—that treats the satisfaction of short term cravings for material goods as the only thing that really matters. The shopper with her pepper spray, the politician with his absurd claim, and the government with its blind disregard for national survival, each acted as though getting the stuff is all that matters, and any obstacle in the way—whether the obstacle was other shoppers, the laws of physics and geology, or the fate of Canada’s future generations—was an irrelevance to be brushed aside by any available means.

In recent years, there’s been a fair amount of intellectual effort devoted to the attempt to prove that this is inevitably how human beings will act, and this effort has had an influence well beyond the borders of, say, cognitive neuroscience. Glance over anything the peak oil blogosphere has to say about the absurdity of today’s public policies on energy, the environment, or the economy, for example, and it’s a safe bet that somebody will post a comment insisting that this is how human beings always behave. In point of historical fact, though, this is far from true. The popularity of the monastic life across so many cultures and centuries is hard to square with such claims; it has not been uncommon for anything up to ten per cent of the population of some countries and times to embrace lives of poverty, celibacy and discipline in a monastic setting. Clearly, whatever drives push our species in the direction of the satisfaction of short term cravings are not quite as omnipotent as they’ve been made out to be.

More to the point, those of us who had the chance to get to know people of the generation that came of age in the Great Depression have a solid counterexample to mind. A great many Americans who lived through that long ordeal came out of the experience with a set of attitudes toward material goods that were radically different from the ones we’ve just been discussing. They were, to judge by the examples I had the chance to know, as materialistic as any other American generation has ever been, but the shadow of 1929 lay permanently across any notion that pursuing short term gains at the cost of long term disaster could possibly be a good idea. It’s not accidental that the gutting of regulations on banks that made the current economic debacle possible did not happen until the generation that had witnessed 1929 had passed from public life—nor that it was the generation of the Baby Boom, the first to grow up after depression and war had definitively given way to Pax Americana, that first put today’s culture of short term satisfaction into overdrive.

The behavior of a society, in other words, has at least as much to do with its recent experience of the world as it does with the deeper but more diffuse influence of the biological drives its members share with the rest of the species. Ironically, Gingrich’s response in the presidential debate pointed this up, though I suspect he himself will be the last person on the planet to realize this. He insisted that just as the United States was able to crush the Axis powers in the Second World War, a mobilization on a similar scale guided by the same optimism and can-do attitude could overwhelm any conceivable petroleum shortage and crash the price of oil. It’s a common metaphor—how many times have people in the peak oil scene, for example, called for a new Manhattan Project?—but in the present context it’s hopelessly misleading.

The Second World War, if anything, is a textbook case in what happens when optimism and a can-do attitude runs up against the hard facts of thermodynamics. All things considered, the Axis powers had better generalship, more disciplined military forces, and a much keener grasp of the possibilities of mechanized warfare than the Allies had at first, and Germany, at least, was ahead of the Allies in advanced military technology all the way through the war. What they did not have was secure access to fuel—and lacking that, they lost. Russia’s Baku oilfields and the immense US petroleum deposits in Texas and elsewhere more than made up the difference, providing the Allies with practically limitless supplies of energy, and thus of troops, weapons, mobility, and everything else that makes for victory in war. Having those things, they won.

It’s all the more ironic in that a similar struggle had a similar result on Gingrich’s home turf a century and a half ago. No one can possibly accuse the Confederacy of a shortage of optimism or can-do attitude, and the chief Confederate generals were incomparably better than their Union rivals. What those same Union generals finally figured out, though, was that the North’s larger population and vastly greater economic base meant that generalship didn’t matter; the North simply had to force the South into one meatgrinder battle after another, because even if the Union losses were larger, they could be replaced and the South’s could not. Appomattox followed in due order.

One of the points that needs to be drawn from these examples, and the many others like them, is that optimism and a can-do attitude are in large part effects rather than causes; or, to put matters a little differently, they are relevant to certain circumstances and not to others. In the twentieth century, a nation with abundant supplies of coal, oil, and iron ore could well afford boundless optimism, and got along better with boundless optimism than without it, because the resource base was there to back up that optimism and give it muscles—and, when necessary, teeth. A nation that lacks such resources but still sets out to act on the basis of boundless optimism, on the other hand, risks ending up in roughly the same condition as the American South in 1865 or Germany and Japan in 1945. Such a nation needs to foster entirely different qualities than the ones just mentioned: circumspection, patience, and a keen sense of the downside risks of any opportunity come to mind. Equipped with these, it’s possible for a nation with few resources to distract, dissuade, and ultimately outlast its potential enemies. That’s the secret of Switzerland’s survival, to cite one example among many.

The wild card in these calculations comes into play when shifts in technology, on the one hand, or the depletion of nonrenewable resources on the other, changes the status of a nation faster than its internal cultural shifts can adapt. Britain’s history is a case in point. Britain’s empire happened to come of age just as the Industrial Revolution was dawning, and coal—of which Britain had huge and easily accessible deposits—was the essential fuel of that revolution, powering the steam engines and (in the form of coke) the iron and steel foundries that were essential to economic and military power in the 18th and 19th centuries. With the dawn of the 20th century, though, petroleum—far more energy-rich than even the best anthracite coal, and irreplaceable as fuel for gasoline and diesel engines, which were busy putting coal-fired steam power out of business—elbowed coal out of the way. Britain had next to no petroleum supplies of her own, since the offshore drilling techniques that made the North Sea fields accessible were still decades in the future.

The result was a tremendous new range of vulnerabilities that next to nobody noticed in time. Twice in twenty-five years, accordingly, Britain blundered into a land war in Europe and found itself abruptly scrambling for survival. In both cases, it had to turn to its erstwhile colony, the United States, to bail it out, and the price tag on those bailouts finally included Britain’s empire and its status as a major world power. (There were several other countries just as eager as we were to buy Britain’s empire and status, but—well, basically, we peppersprayed them and left the store with our prize.) Optimism and a can-do attitude counted for very little, for example, when German submarines could throw a noose around the British islands that Britain alone couldn’t break.

The end of the age of petroleum promises another set of upsets on the same scale, but this time it’s not because some more convenient and concentrated resource has suddenly come on the scene. It’s because the world’s production of conventional petroleum peaked in 2005 and has been declining ever since. A desperate scramble to fill the resulting gap with what appear on the charts as "other liquids"—ethanol, biodiesel, tar sand extracts, you name it, if it can be poured into a fuel tank and burnt, it gets counted—has filled in the gap, at least for now, but all these "other liquids" require much more energy to produce than ordinary petroleum does, and of course those energy inputs aren’t accounted for in the totals. Thus, on paper, we’ve been chugging along a bumpy plateau for six years now, while in the real world—because of the rising energy inputs demanded by the "other liquids"—the supply of fuel available to do anything other than produce more fuel has been steadily sliding.

The problem we face right now is that it’s only been a few short years since world petroleum production was expanding, and next to nobody has begun to think through the implications of the shift. Neither the United States nor anybody else has the vast supplies of energy and other raw materials that would be needed to back up the confident, brash optimism of an earlier day, and yet we still cling to the notion that those attitudes are the appropriate response to any crisis, because that’s the approach we know. Patience, prudence, hard realism, the cold-eyed assessment of potential risks—those are foreign concepts to the leaders and the populace alike in most of the world’s industrial nations, and especially so here in America, where the cult of enthusiastic optimism has been welded solidy in place since before the birth of the Republic. It has always worked before, and most Americans at every point on the socioeconomic spectrum are firmly convinced that it will work again.

But it will not work again, because the resources that would allow it to work again no longer exist.

That is why, dear reader, if you happen to live for another few decades, and have the chance to look back from that vantage point on the years just ahead of us, you are likely to see those years littered with the scraps of any number of grandiose plans meant to overcome the rising spiral of crises taking shape around us right now. None of them will have worked, because none of them will deal with the driving force behind that spiral of crisis—the hard fact that we’ve exhausted most of the easily extracted, highly concentrated energy sources on this planet, and are going to have to downscale our expectations and our collective sense of entitlement to fit within the narrower and more burdensome limits that dependence on renewable energy sources will impose on us. Quite the contrary; every one of these projects will start from the assumption that optimism and a can-do attitude can overcome those limits—and the tighter the limits press and the more obvious it becomes that the limits aren’t budging, the more passionate the claims that one more heroic effort will defeat them once and for all.

Those claims will come from every point on the political spectrum, and will wrap themselves in every conceivable scrap of rhetoric that comes to hand. Before all this is over, I expect to see people who now call themselves environmentalists advocating for the stripmining of our national parks—in an environmentally sensitive manner, to be sure. We’ve already seen erstwhile environmentalists such as Stewart Brand and George Monbiot championing nuclear power; how poisoning the biosphere with radioactive waste makes more sense than flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide may well puzzle you as much as it does me, but straining at greenhouse gnats and swallowing nuclear camels is apparently a job requirement in their field these days.

What neither the pundits nor the politicians nor ordinary people are willing to consider, in turn, is the one option that offers a meaningful way forward: learning the old and necessary lesson that our desires need to be held within the bounds that the universe provides for us, and that long term goals and values need to trump short term cravings, especially where material goods are concerned. We can no longer afford the sort of attitude that insists that it’s okay to pepperspray our fellow shoppers to get that brand new video game console, or pepperspray the laws of physics and geology to get that extra four million barrels a day of oil (or, more precisely, to get the presidency by pretending we can get that extra four million barrels a day of oil), or pepperspray Canada’s grandchildren to get the right set of pretty figures on the national balance of trade and federal budget. Still, for the foreseeable future, pepperspray will be popular in the corridors of power and the corner tavern alike, and it will take a certain number of unnecessary disasters before that ends and people in the industrial world begin to come to terms with the new reality.

This, finally, is why I’ve spent the last year and a half passing on what I learned, decades ago, of the do-it-yourself green wizardry of the Seventies, and why I’ve supplemented that over the last two months with some of the basic elements of magic—the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will—which I also began to learn in the Seventies, and which had rather more than a nodding acquaintance in those days with the movements focused on appropriate technology, organic gardening, and the rest of it. During the years immediately ahead of us, unless I’m very much mistaken, the political, economic, and cultural institutions of the industrial world can be counted on to do just about anything other than a meaningful response to the crisis of our age, and any meaningful response that does happen is going to have to come from individuals, families, and community groups.

During those same years, I suspect, every available effort will be made to convince as many people as possible that the nonsolutions on offer are actually meaningful responses, and the things that might actually help—using less, conserving more, and downscaling our burden on the planet—are unthinkable. That’s the sort of thing that happens when the world changes, and structures and institutions adapted to an old reality turn out to be hopelessly unworkable in the new one. Next week we’ll talk about what might follow that period, and wrap up the discussion of green wizardry and magic alike for the time being.


Those of my readers who enjoy modern dance and are interested in supporting what, as far as I know, is the world's first peak oil-related dance performance may be interested to know that choreographer Valerie Green and her dance troupe, Dance Entropy, are seeking sponsors and donors for their upcoming piece Rise and Fall, which is based in part on my book The Long Descent. It's a worthy cause, and certainly has more to recommend it than dodging pepper spray in a big box store...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bringing It Down To Earth

We’ve covered a lot of ground in the last two months or so, and at this point I want to summarize the territory thus explored and link it back into the core of this blog’s project—the search for a realistic understanding of the troubled future ahead of us, and a meaningful way to respond to it. One crucial part of that response, I’ve suggested, relates to that tangled realm where consciousness meets the unconscious drives that shape so much of our experience of the world: a realm that contemporary thought addresses, however incompletely, through the science of psychology, and that the older lore of magic approaches in a much more comprehensive and potent way.

That latter lore is only one part of the toolkit we’re going to need to deal with the storms to come, but it’s an important part, and it’s well suited to deal with issues most of today’s proposals for the future leave unanswered. Much more often than not, peak oil, anthropogenic climate change, and most of the other symptoms of our civilization’s head-on collision with planetary limits to growth are treated as technical problems that can be addressed with technical solutions. Bookshelves around the world have accordingly been piled to the breaking point with proposed technical solutions. Some of them are basically handwaving, others are attempts to shill for one or another industry or political movement, but a fair number are serious proposals that could do at least some good if they were put into effect.

The difficulty, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, is that none of these plans are being put into effect, and there’s no good reason to think that any of them will be. Quite the contrary: by and large, modern industrial civilization is moving the other way, following the same trajectory of overshoot that has terminated the history of so many other civilizations. What’s more, we’re not being dragged down that road, or forced along it by the pressure of circumstances; by and large, we’re going that way with whoops of enthusiasm. When the United States abandoned its last real attempt to head in the other direction, in the early 1980s, the collective sigh of relief must have been audible on the Moon, and anyone who didn’t join in the stampede along the road to overshoot—and I can speak here from three decades of personal experience—came in for a spectrum of nasty responses, ranging from spluttering abuse to scornful pity, from pretty much anyone else who noticed.

That is to say, it’s not the technical dimension of the predicament of industrial society that matters most just now. It’s the inner dimension, the murky realm of nonrational factors that keep our civilization from doing anything that doesn’t make the situation worse, that must be faced if anything constructive is going to happen at all. In a civilization that’s spent the last three and a half centuries trying to pretend that this inner dimension doesn’t matter, it was a foregone conclusion that most people’s inner lives would end up an unholy mess. It doesn’t help matters at all that plenty of political, economic, cultural, and religious interest groups, some of them with prodigious resources at their beck, have put a very large fraction of those resources into schemes to manipulate people’s minds using any number of nonrational hot buttons, in order to maximize their own wealth and power.

An effective response to this predicament, as I’ve proposed here, involves several unfamiliar steps. The first of them is to get out from under the collective thinking of our society and the manufactured popular pseudoculture that holds that collective thinking pinned firmly in place in the minds of most people, so you can make your own decisions about what goes into your mind, instead of letting huge corporations ante up millions of dollars to choose for you. (It still amazes me how many people never wonder why what appears on TV is called "programming.") This is a challenging task, made even more so by the blank incomprehension and active hostility of those who are still down there in the belly of the beast, but the payoff is worth it. The problem with thinking thoughts that you’re told to think by others, after all, is that the people who tell you what to think are doing it for their own advantage, not for yours; think your own thoughts, and doors open before you that the thoughts you’ve been told to think are meant to keep tightly shut.

The second step is to learn how to get along with the nonrational side of your own inner life. There are any number of ways to do that; various schools of psychology, philosophy, religion and magic all have their own toolkits for this kind of work, and what appeals to one person is certain to repel somebody else. I’ve discussed a handful of useful mental tools, drawn mostly from one tradition in which I’ve had some training, and they may be enough for those readers who don’t feel any attraction to the more intensive work on offer from the schools just mentioned. Those who do feel such an attraction can find more detailed guidance in whatever tradition they choose to study and, more importantly, to practice.

These two steps provide the neglected mental dimension that’s so often missing in attempts to deal with the future bearing down on us. Without them, with weary inevitability, proposals for change end up gathering dust on the overloaded bookshelves already mentioned, if they don’t simply mutate into yet another excuse for business as usual. Einstein’s famous dictum—"We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them"—is true, but it’s only part of the whole picture. You can change your thinking all you like, but if you don’t deal with the nonrational factors that drove your previous thinking, your brand new thoughts are going to head in the same old directions. Only if you distance yourself from the thaumaturgy that predetermines so much human thinking, and then come to grips with the mental automatisms and unthinking reactions within yourself, that you can pick the locks on what Blake called "the mind-forg’d manacles" and choose your own path.

Once all this is done, though, there’s a third step, which consists of bringing the work you’ve done down from the realm of mental phenomena into the realm of everyday life. That’s an essential element of magical practice, by the way; it’s a core teaching of the old occult philosophies that your magical work, however deep it may reach into the innermost realms of consciousness, has to be brought all the way down to earth, and anchored right here in the world of matter by an appropriate action on what occultists like to call the material plane. Put more simply, in magic as in anything else, it’s necessary to walk your talk, or the talk dries up into excuses and goes rolling away like tumbleweeds in the wind.

One question that needs careful consideration, though, is how to walk the talk we’ve been discussing over these last few months—or, to put the thing in more explicitly magical terms, how to choose an appropriate anchor for the movement of consciousness I’ve tried to set in motion in the last two months of blog posts. The careful consideration is essential here for several reasons, but the most important of them is that contemporary culture is well stocked with bad advice on this subject.

Thus it’s a very common notion, when the issue of walking your talk comes up, to think that it’s enough to engage in activism—in other words, to walk your talk by insisting that the government, or the big corporations, or other people in general, get out and walk theirs. Activism has its place, to be sure, and potentially an important one, but activism only matters if the people who are doing it have already followed Gandhi’s advice and become the change that they wish to see in the world. When that first necessary step doesn’t happen, activism fails. Those of my readers who have watched the self-destruction of the climate change movement have already seen how far activism gets when the activists show no signs of accepting the limits that they hope to impose on others.

Beyond that, there’s another problem with activism in this context, which is that it amounts to demanding that somebody else do something. There are times when this is an entirely appropriate thing to do—when, for example, it’s precisely the actions or inactions of a government or a corporation that need to be addressed. Not all the difficulties that beset a modern society come from such causes, though, and when a problem is actually being caused by habits of thought and action that are shared by everyone—even when some people engage in them more, or more profitably, than others—trying to make a handful of the worst offenders take the blame for everybody is not an effective strategy. Nor is it any more helpful to insist that a few people, however rich and powerful they may be, are to blame for changes that have their origin in factors entirely outside of human control.

The Occupy Wall Street protests that are still struggling gamely on as I write this, despite a rising tide of police repression, have fallen into both these latter traps. Though the culture of larceny that defines Wall Street these days amply deserves criticism—not to mention the legal charges of racketeering and fraud that the Obama administration has steadfastly refused to file, even in the cases that most stridently call for it—the misbehavior of bankers and stockbrokers doesn’t actually have that much to do with the decline of the American economy that has deprived a great many of the OWS protesters of the chance to earn a living. Central to that decline is, first, the unraveling of the American global hegemony that, until recently, funnelled some 25% of the world’s energy resources and 33% of its raw materials and industrial product to the 5% of humanity that lives in the United States; and second, the ongoing depletion of those same energy resources and raw materials, which is ending the abundance that made the American lifestyle of the 20th century possible in the first place.

No amount of protesting is going to refill the once vast and now mostly depleted reserves of cheap oil and other resources that gave America its age of extravagance, nor is protest going to do anything to stop the decline of America as a world power or the rise of competing powers. Blaming the results of both these processes on the manifold abuses of Wall Street is not going to help the situation noticeably—though seeing bankers and stockbrokers doing perp walks through the streets of Manhattan might do a little to restore public faith in the rule of law, which has taken quite a beating in recent years. Most Americans, ignoring these realities, still insist they are entitled to a standard of living that neither their country’s faltering position in the world, nor the hard facts of physics and geology, will enable them to have for much longer, or get back if they’ve already lost it. Until that sense of entitlement gives way to a more realistic set of expectations, nothing is going to solve the problem Americans think they have—that of finding a way to hang onto hopelessly unsustainable lifestyles—and nothing is going to be done to deal with the predicament Americans actually face—that of dealing with the end of abundance in a way that doesn’t finish shredding the already frayed fabric of our society.

Any attempt to walk the talk that we’ve been discussing here, in other words, has to begin with the individual, and has to start with the acceptance of a very significantly lowered standard of living. To return to an acronym I’ve proposed here already, any response to the future that doesn’t involve using LESS—Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation—simply isn’t a serious response to the downside of the industrial age. The toolkit of the Seventies organic gardening and appropriate tech movements, which I’ve discussed here at some length, is among many other things a very effective way of responding to the need to use LESS in a humane and creative manner.

By growing a garden and raising chickens in your backyard instead of buying packaged and processed vegetables and eggs that are shipped halfway across the continent, conserving energy relentlessly and getting as much as you can from local renewable sources, and sharply downscaling the pursuit of material excess in favor of a life that’s rich in experiences, relationships, and meaning, it’s possible to get by very comfortably on a small fraction of the energy, stuff, and stimulation that most Americans think they need. This isn’t simply a good thing on abstract grounds, though it is that. On the individual scale, such steps provide a margin of safety in hard times that the ordinary American lifestyle simply doesn’t have; on the community scale, those who embrace such steps are positioned to act as role models and mentors for those who decide to make the same changes later on, when the advantages of doing so are likely to be much more evident; on the wider scale, even a very modest movement in this direction, amidst the widening failure of the political and economic mainstream to do anything worth noticing in the face of the widening crisis of our time, might just possibly fill the role of a seed crystal around which a much larger movement could take shape.

Seen from another perspective, though, these practical steps also have a magical dimension: they serve to bring the changes in consciousness we’ve been discussing for the last two months all the way down into the world of everyday life. To complete the task of breaking away from the murky thinking and the tangled nonrational drives that dominate contemporary life in today’s America, it’s necessary to break away from the lifestyles and everyday choices that are produced by that thinking and those drives. Mind you, the same equation works the other way around: to make the break away from lifestyles that demand energy and resource flows we can’t count on getting for much longer—and making that break is perhaps the most essential task of the decade or so immediately before us—it’s going to be necessary to turn away from the thinking patterns and the unmentioned and usually unnoticed passions that make those lifestyles seem to make sense.

The recognition that these two transformations, the outer and the inner, work in parallel and have to be carried out together is the missing piece that the sustainability movements of the Seventies never quite caught. Significant steps were taken toward that discovery; books such as Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature and E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide For The Perplexed lay out much of the groundwork from which an analysis of the sort I’ve been suggesting in these essays could have been built. Some of the less intellectually vacuous movements in the alternative spirituality scene of the time were moving in the same direction from the other side of the equation. Still, it never quite came together; the engineers were too dismissive of the occultists, the occultists were too suspicious of the engineers, and when the Reagan administration came into power and hit the entire movement at its most vulnerable point—the flows of government and foundation grant money on which nearly all of it, appropriate tech engineers and New Age theorists alike, had become fatally dependent—the chance at that recognition went by the boards.

That could happen again. I’ve suggested more than once that the troubles looming ahead of us in the near term may well open a window of opportunity for the same kinds of effort toward sustainability that we had, and then lost, in the wake of the energy crises of the Seventies. If something of the sort does happen, once the immediate crisis is out of the way, there will inevitably be a backlash, and that backlash will likely wield the same tools of thaumaturgy that were turned on the appropriate tech movement in the early 1980s with devastating effect. Good intentions and idealism, it bears remembering, are not an adequate safeguard against systematic manipulation of the mass mind, especially when that manipulation moves in parallel with the desperate craving of a great many Americans to have the lifestyles they think they deserve and ought to get.

Meeting a challenge on that scale is a tall order. Still, any movement faced with a backlash of that kind can accept its short term losses, renew its commitments to its values and vision, keep on going straight through the initial waves of negative publicity, and carve out a niche from which it can’t be dislodged, and pursue a long-range strategy, knowing that the tide will eventually turn its way. With a few worthy exceptions, that didn’t happen in the twilight years of the early Eighties, but many other movements of many kinds have done it, and a noticeable number of them have passed through that stage and gone on to accomplish their goals. Whether green wizardry or the broader peak oil movement reaches that last milestone is up to the future; for the time being, though, while it’s vital that we be ready to respond if a window of opportunity does open for us, it’s even more vital that when the backlash comes, as the Who put it, we won’t get fooled again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Aristotle's Secret

Those of my readers who have looked on from a distance as a large car wreck took place have some idea of my state of mind over the last week. Each of the three high-stakes poker games I mentioned in last week’s post—the European financial mess, the evolution (or devolution) of Occupy Wall Street, and the seismic shifts in world politics driven by the rise of China—have continued along trajectories that are pretty much guaranteed to end messily.

In Europe, the spotlight has shifted from Greece to Italy as investors around the world bail out of Italian government bonds, driving interest rates above the 7% threshold that, by general consent, separates investments from junk. There’s a new Italian government, and a new Greek government, and no doubt there will be new governments in other countries before long, but since nobody is willing to do the one thing that will fix the problem—that is, admit that debts that can’t be paid will, in fact, not be paid, and allow the banks that unwisely lent money to deadbeat nations to go under, as capitalist economic theory says they should—changing governments won’t change anything significant. I wish more people remembered what happened the last time European governments put allegiance to a global financial regime ahead of the needs of their own people; that was in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, for those who need a reminder. We’ll talk more about that down the road a bit.

On this side of the water, the Occupy Wall Street protest and its equivalents in other American cities seem to have peaked for now, and the authorities have responded predictably by wading in with pepper spray and billy clubs. We’re still early in this particular game, though, far too early for either side to have a shot at winning or losing. Whether or not the protesters retain a token presence in urban centers over the winter, the coming of warm weather, the continuing decline of the American economy, and the public embarrassment of an upcoming presidential campaign in which nobody’s willing to talk about any of the real issues, will bring the protest kettle back to a steady boil in the new year.

China’s emergence as the next superpower, finally, touched off a flurry of undiplomatic sniping. Obama, scrambling once again to shore up his fading reelection prospects, tried to talk tough about Chinese monetary policy at an international meeting, demanding that China "play by the rules." The Chinese retorted tartly that they were quite willing to play by rules that were decided on fairly by all parties, but submitting to a set of rules the United States established to shore up its own interests to everyone else’s disadvantage did not interest them. Across a wide range of issues, from trade policy to saber-rattling over Iran, China continues to carve out a position diametrically opposed to US interests in the face of increasingly ineffectual US opposition. How that will play out in the long run is a very good question, and will probably determine a great deal of the way that the 21st century plays out.

All this, and the twilight of American empire that gives it its context and importance, will be central to a series of posts I plan on beginning here in the not too distant future. In the meantime, though, there are a few more points about magic I want to discuss, and weave back into the discussion of Green Wizardry that has guided this blog for almost a year and a half now.

The elements of magical philosophy I’ve covered in recent posts here on The Archdruid Report aren’t simply an odd fit for a discussion on peak oil; they also contradict some of the most basic habits of contemporary thought. Thus it’s come as a pleasant surprise to see how many of my readers have been able to keep up with the discussion, and even to anticipate the issues to be raised in the next post. My post two weeks ago, A Choice of Contemplations, was no exception; several commenters thought about the principle that "what you contemplate, you imitate," noted that a great many people in the peak oil movement spend a great deal of time contemplating worst case scenarios, and worried aloud that this habit might conceivably help bring those worst case scenarios about.

To some extent, that concern is based on a misunderstanding I’ve addressed already. Just as contemplating a toaster oven may make you imitate a toaster oven, but it won’t make one magically appear on your kitchen counter, contemplating a global disaster won’t necessarily make global disaster more likely—though it’s fair to note that it may make you imitate the behavior that you believe is going to cause global disaster, if your contemplations focus on that behavior intensely enough. This last point is a real issue, not only in the peak oil scene, but all through the spectrum of movements that have risen in response to industrial society’s failure to deal with its dependence on the planet it plunders so recklessly: far too many people in these movements devote more attention to what they oppose than to what they value.

Sometimes this gets taken to a familiar and embarrassing extreme. I suspect all of us have met people who are fixated on the belief that some particular set of bad people are personally and malevolently responsible for whatever grievances they happen to feel most acutely. Talk to them about anything, and pretty quickly the conversation will come around to the badness of the bad people and the bad things they’re doing, whoever and whatever happen to be the object of their obsessions. Wind them up and get them going, in fact, and quite often it all starts to sound weirdly like an infatuated teenager talking about the girl of his dreams. From a psychological standpoint, of course, this is exactly what’s going on; the actions of the putative villains, like the charms of the girl, have become an inkblot onto which wholly internal psychological needs and emotions are projected.

Still, it’s not necessary to go to this extreme to get caught up in contemplation of what you don’t want to imitate. There are doubtless plenty of reasons why so many people in the climate change movement never got around to accepting the sharp reductions in their personal carbon footprints that they wanted to impose on everyone else, but I’ve long suspected that too much contemplation of what they thought they were fighting was one of them. There were some people in that movement who tried to sketch out visions of a low-carbon future that was more interesting and more appealing than the present, but by and large the movement presented the world with a choice between a continuation of business as usual by low-carbon means, on the one hand, and planetary dieoff on the other. The ineffective but familiar strategy of trying to get people to change by scaring the bejesus out of them—sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia!—took over from there, preaching vehemently about greedy polluters ravaging the Earth in an orgy of conspicuous consumption. The result was to make this image so powerful that a great many people in the climate change movement were drawn into contemplating it, and thus imitating it.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid this trap. The most obvious, and most basic, is to go out of your way to spend more time contemplating what you value than what you oppose. It’s not necessary to have a comprehensive plan for a better world already in mind, since the levels of your brain and nervous system that respond to contemplation with imitation don’t need abstract plans, and can’t really use them. What they need are good clear images that express the values you want to cultivate. That’s why advertising has so little conceptual content and so many emotionally compelling images, for example; the thaumaturgists of Madison Avenue know perfectly well what they’re doing—which is one of the many good reasons why you should scrap your TV sooner rather than later. The same method works as well when you choose the images, instead of letting big corporations choose them for you.

There’s a step beyond this, one that combines several of the principles we’ve discussed here already, but the best way to make sense of this further step involves a detour involving ancient Greece, modern California, and one of the more interesting figures in 20th-century occultism, the Austrian philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner was an oddity in the occult community of his time, a genuine scholar—he’s the guy who edited the standard edition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s scientific works—whose visionary experiences led him first into a variety of early 20th century occult circles and then to the creation of his own highly original teachings. The movement he founded, Anthroposophy, was one of the options I seriously considered, back in the day when I was first looking for a source of occult training. That didn’t turn out to be the path I chose, but even so, Steiner’s work on biodynamic agriculture has had a lot of influence on my own gardening methods, and if I’d had children, it’s a good bet that they would have gone to a school that used the Waldorf system of education that Steiner founded.

His particular system of occult (or, as his followers like to say, "spiritual-scientific") teachings covers a lot of ground, enough to fill a couple of good-sized bookshelves, and—as the examples just mentioned suggest—strays fairly regularly into territory, such as gardening and education, that aren’t normally associated with the occult. One core theme of his teaching, though, has a direct bearing on what we’re discussing here. Steiner’s work drew extensively on central European traditions of occult Christianity, but his Christianity differs from the standard version in an intriguing way. Most varieties of Christianity map the moral dimension of existence onto a binary spectrum extending from God to Satan. Steiner argued instead that there were two powers of evil—he called them Ahriman and Lucifer respectively—who were as opposed to each other as both were to the powers of good, represented in this age of the world by the Archangel Michael.

While that redefinition came out of Steiner’s own visionary experiences, he was following the lead of one of the towering minds of the Western tradition, the ancient Greek polymath Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics, arguably the most influential work on the philosophy of ethics ever penned, Aristotle argued that any given virtue was not the opposite of one vice but the midpoint between two. Courage, he pointed out, was opposed to cowardice, but it was equally opposed to the sort of rash stupidity that ignores the existence of danger; real generosity is no more compatible with greed than with spendthrift wastefulness, and so on through the catalog of the virtues. For most of two thousand years, Christian philosophers have coped uneasily with the mismatch between Aristotle’s ethical insights and the mythic imagery of their own faith; Steiner found what is certainly one of the more thoughtful ways through the tangle.

Ahriman and Lucifer—well, those of my readers who have been to California’s two most famous cities already know them well enough to pick them out in a perp walk. Los Angeles is as Ahrimanic a city as you’ll find this side of the underworld. Everyone there seems to be there exclusively for the purposes of getting rich, getting famous, getting laid, and getting stoned, not necessarily in that order. That’s the Ahrimanic end of evil—wallowing in material experience, the coarser the better, until you drown in it. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Luciferic capital of North America, San Francisco, where the reigning vice is the spiritual pride that sees oneself as too good for the world as it is, and turns every interaction into a display of one’s self-defined superiority to the rest of the cosmos. Weirdly, an identical polarity existed through much of the 19th century on the opposite side of the continent, between gaudily greedy New York City and holier-than-thou Boston; the prevalence of the pattern suggests that something in the American character, at least, is well described by Steiner’s theory.

According to the metaphor, there ought to be a place halfway in between where neither the Ahrimanic nor the Luciferic influence holds sway, and the good that is opposed by both these evils comes into its own. Unfortunately the large city that’s more or less midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco is Fresno, which has as yet shown no sign of rising to its cosmic destiny, and Hartford, Connecticut—which is roughly halfway between Boston and New York—seems to have gotten through the 19th century without any particular gleam of archangelic radiance. Whether or not this says something worth noticing about America’s capacity to manifest its ideals, or simply about the fact that every metaphor sooner or later hits the point of diminishing returns, the concept central to Aristotle’s philosophy and Steiner’s vision—that it’s possible to run off the rails on either side of the track—is the thing I’m hoping to communicate here.

Apply that concept to the pervasive binaries that run through contemporary thinking about the future and some of the strategy that’s guided this blog since its inception may be a little more clear to my regular readers. When The Archdruid Report was launched five and a half years ago, the most common of those binaries was the insistence that the future of industrial society had to be either an endless trajectory of continued progress, on the one hand, or a sudden cataclysmic dieoff on the other. The experiment of consistently proposing a more plausible third option—the option of decline, which after all is what’s happened to every past civilization that’s overshot its resource base, as ours has—seems to have played some role in helping the peak oil scene get past that fixation.

The same principle has other uses, though. Let’s say you’re faced with a status quo that is obviously problematic and headed for trouble, and you want to envision an alternative. Even among thoughtful people these days, it’s all too common to meet this sort of situation by imagining the opposite of the status quo as your alternative, and assuming that since the status quo is bad, the opposite must be good. There are some obvious problems with this sort of thinking, and some that may not be so obvious; we’ll be talking in another week or so about the way that binary opposition locks into place whatever it sets out to oppose, for example.

Put Aristotle’s and Steiner’s logic to work, though, and you have a far more useful tool. Take the status quo, and then imagine an opposite that’s just as bad as the status quo, but for the opposite reasons. That makes you think about just what it is about the status quo that’s problematic, to begin with; once you’ve identified the problems, it challenges you to consider the downside of going to the opposite extremes; and once you’ve identified the spectrum of possibilities, it leads you to explore many points along that spectrum, in search of the range of options that offer the most benefits and the fewest drawbacks. It’s far less simple—or simplistic—than going to the opposite extreme; it also works better in the real world, where hard binary oppositions are a good deal less common than muddily complex issues in which moderation is inevitably a better strategy than extremism.

Finally, the same logic can be applied to the problem I raised earlier—the risks run in contemplating something you don’t want to imitate. If you’re going to have to pay attention to something you don’t want to mirror in your own life, figure out what the equally destructive opposite to that thing would be, and put some attention into that, too. If you’ve chosen your opposite precisely enough, the two will cancel each other out—you can’t imitate something and its exact opposite at the same time—and the positive alternative halfway between the two, the thing you want to imitate and that you should also be contemplating, trumps both the negatives.

Imitating the status quo, for example, is not a good idea; there are plenty of reasons for that, some of which we’ll be discussing down the road a bit, but the dubious value of copying the mores of a society that in practice treats shopping for products as the highest reach of human potential will probably be evident to most of my readers. What defines the modern industrial world, from this perspective, is a mode of life dominated by absurd material extravagance. What’s the opposite of that? A mode of life dominated by bitter material insufficiency—that is to say, the kind of society we may yet end up with, if the delusions of infinite material growth continue to guide our collective policy for too much longer: a society in which early death by starvation, exposure, and treatable disease is the fate of most people, because the resources that might have prevented that outcome were squandered on the senseless wastefulness of previous decades.

Between these two extremes, in turn, quite a range of potentially viable midpoints can be found, and of course that’s part of the point; a binary analysis allows for only two options, a ternary analysis for an infinite number between the far ends of a spectrum. Still, the options that are viable all share certain basic elements in common. First of all, they start from the realization that the material resources that support human life are finite, and can be exhausted if they’re used too greedily or treated too cavalierly. They recognize that too much is as problematic as not enough, that "longages" can be as destructive as shortages. Given the current and continuing trajectory of contemporary industrial civilization, they take it as a given that most resources are going to be in much shorter supply in the years to come, that collective institutions such as governments and markets—which are geared to the fantasy of perpetual growth—are unlikely to take useful steps until it’s too late to do much, and that individual action focused on learning to get by with much less is therefore essential to any viable path to the future.

That is to say, they share certain important things in common with the Green Wizardry we’ve been discussing here over the last year and a half. In the weeks to come, we’ll bring both the discussions involved in this last point—the exploration of Green Wizardry and that of magic—full circle.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Gathering of the Tribe

I walk half a mile through a chill autumn morning to the bleak little cinderblock building that serves the old mill town where I live as a train station. Wednesdays aren’t usually busy, but close to a dozen other passengers are waitinge before the train pulls up. I climb on board, stash my duffel bag above my seat, get my ticket punched, and then head forward to the lounge car. By the time we roll past Oldtown, where the Shawnee once had a major village, I’m perched at a downstairs table with a cup of tea, some Latin reference books, and the draft translation of a Renaissance handbook on the art of memory, proving (if there was any lingering doubt) that there are non-computer geeks as well.

The train rolls to a halt in Washington a little after noon, ahead of schedule. I shoulder my duffel and head through milling crowds into the cavernous magnificence of Union Station, then back out into bright sunlight. A few minutes later I’ve reached the hotel. It’s one of those grim concrete-and-steel excrescences that justify the claim that Americans have their sense of proportion surgically removed at birth. Not long afterward I’m stepping into the faux-comfy bleakness of the generic hotel room I’ll be sharing for four nights with someone I’ve never met.

I have a few hours to kill—enough time to unpack, visit the hotel fitness center for a good long t’ai chi practice, shower, and replace traveling clothes with something that blends in a bit more with my current surroundings. Later I’ll be meeting a friend for dinner, and later still there’ll be a reception. I check the paper copy of my script, make sure the thumb drive with the PowerPoint half of the presentation is in a convenient place. I’m here for work, as an attendee and presenter at the seventh annual conference of ASPO-USA, the American branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.


Meanwhile, a few thousand miles to the east, the economic system of a continent is coming apart at the seams. During the boom times now fading in history’s rearview mirror, the nation of Greece borrowed heavily to pay its bills, and found no shortage of banks willing to ante up the funds. Now that boom has given way to bust, Greece can’t meet its payments. In the ordinary way of things, Greece would simply default on its debt, and the banks would suffer from what economists call “market discipline;” that is to say, they would take massive losses, and some would go under.

The first commandment of modern high finance, though, is that investors must be protected from the consequences of even their most stupid decisions. Instead of defaulting, accordingly, Greece has been pressured by the rest of Europe to accept one round of massive budget cuts after another, in exchange for just enough money to keep default at bay a little longer. The latest arrangement brokered by the French and German governments includes cuts so sweeping that Greece’s prime minister George Papandreou, returning home, decides to put the matter to a popular referendum.

It seems reasonable enough that in a democratic nation—which Greece is, at least in theory—the people ought to have at least some say in any arrangement so burdensome. This logic does not impress the unelected junta that effectively runs the European Union these days. By the time the ASPO conference is over, Papandreou is forced to retract his proposal, and is on his way out of a job. Meanwhile, European banks are dumping government bonds as fast as they can, Italy is in increasing trouble, and France is probably next.


Thursday morning, after an early breakfast, I head up the street to the US Capitol. The opening session will be held at the, or more likely a, Capitol auditorium. This is part of a maze of underground rooms beneath the plaza in front of the Capitol; we file through an airport-style security checkpoint, follow a guide through spaces that would not seem out of place in a midrange hotel in Pittsburgh, and end up taking seats in what looks unnervingly like a pricey suburban movie house.

Conferences, I have learned, follow one of two models, which might be called the Chautauqua model and the circus model. The Chatauqua model—does anyone these days remember the old Chatauqua shows? Communities across nineteenth-century America built large meeting halls and brought in lecturers to speak in them. Every week or so, outside of planting and harvest time, you could count on an evening lecture at the Chautaqua hall on any subject you cared to imagine; after some entertainment and a bit of speechifying, the lecturer would spend an hour or two talking about Arctic exploration or electricity or, well, just about anything, followed by a lively question and answer session.

Conferences on the Chautauqua model follow a similar pattern. Individual speakers get 90 minute slots, an hour to talk and half an hour to field questions, so there’s ample time to get into details and engage the audience. Conferences on the circus model, on the other hand, have panels of speakers with fifteen or twenty minutes each, and maybe a few questions at the very end; the man on the flying trapeze gets his fifteen minutes of fame, and then it’s on to the clowns or the dancing bears; the famous names are under the big tent, while lesser performers are sideshow acts. Most conferences I attend outside the peak oil world follow the Chautauqua model, but ASPO follows the circus model.

In the Capitol auditorium, of course, we’re all in the big tent. ASPO’s ringmaster—er, executive director—and the head of the board say a few words, so do the two Congressmen who’ve taken the time to show up, and then it’s on to the major names. Chris Skrebowski, former editor of one of the oil industry’s main trade publications; William Catton Jr., whose 1980 book Overshoot is still far ahead of most other publications on the subject; Jeff Rubin, former chief economist for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce—that’s the first lineup. Skrebowski is precise, Catton measured and thoughtful, Rubin breezy; he sounds a bit like an aging California surfer, which makes an odd fit with his message, which is basically that in the absence of cheap fossil fuels, the global economy is screwed.

There’s a break, and then the next lineup follows—Richard Heinberg, Chris Martenson, Angelina Galiteva, Roger Bezdek. It’s all pretty much variations on a common theme. The next to last is an exception; she’s a California bureaucrat who insists airily that there’s nothing to worry about because alternative energy can easily pick up the slack. She gets asked at the end about the huge and arguably unavailable volumes of rare earth elements and other scarce resources a major buildout of alternative energy tech would require, and evades the question with practiced ease.

That’s how the rest of the day goes. There are some memorable talks, but those who read the peak oil blogosphere have already heard most of it. A fair number of people skip one or more panels and head for the lobby or the bar, where the real action generally seems to be.


Meanwhile, a few hundred miles north, uncomfortable news is beginning to filter back from the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest in New York City. Despite the loud rhetoric of participatory democracy, control of the half million dollars or so of money donated to the protest has been eased into the hands of an unelected committee. Those pushing this arrangement insist that this is because OWS can’t make decisions effectively; this claim is all the more curious in that some of these same people are among those who pushed OWS to adopt the consensus system that’s preventing it from making decisions effectively.

Those of us who are familiar with the professionalization of dissent in recent decades have seen the same process at work countless times. Call it coercive consensus: the manipulation of the forms of consensus to enable a faction with an agenda to take control of a large but unfocused movement. It’s become the standard model for organizing a protest on the American left these days, and is a core reason why the American left has accomplished so little in the decades since that model came into fashion.

The justification for consensus you usually hear these days is that consensus prevents the majority from dominating a minority. This is true since, as a handful of activists have pointed out, consensus allows a minority to dominate the majority. Given standard democratic methods, a gathering of people with common concerns can choose its leaders, set its agenda, make decisions the majority supports, prevent those decisions from being endlessly reconsidered, and get things done. Coercive consensus stymies all these; it’s all but impossible for a consensus-run group to remove even the most manipulative moderator, stop a power grab, or make a decision that won’t be revisited any time it suits the controlling minority to do so.

By the time the ASPO conference is over, the first whispers of these difficulties have started to spread through the peak oil scene. What will happen in the months to come is anyone’s guess, but promising movements time and time again have been hijacked by such methods and reduced to irrelevance.


My roommate is Guy Dauncey, an environmental activist from British Columbia. Attendees who learn that the two of us are sharing a room go wide-eyed and start to giggle, because the ASPO staff would have had a hard time finding two speakers whose ideas are further apart. Guy believes that a green and prosperous world with abundant alternative energy is within our grasp. Still, he’s a likeable man, and we easily find other subjects to talk about when we’re not either asleep or busy at the conference.

We are both presenting on Friday, and the big top is hopping all morning; Guy’s slot comes in a plenary session on alternative energy right before lunch. His presentation blends enthusiastic claims about solar power with Teilhard de Chardin evolutionary mysticism and an insistence that people like me, who suggest that the hard realities of our situation predict a much less genial future for which we need to get ready, are among the main obstacles to bringing his happy future world into being. It’s hardly the first time this argument has been directed my way; I don’t take it any more personally than he takes my jab, later on, at grandiose projects drawn up without reference to the limits of the real world.

After lunch and a rambling speech by eco-farming proponent Wes Jackson, it’s sideshow time, and my session gets under way. It’s on local and community responses to peak oil; that wasn’t what I’d planned to speak about, but the ASPO staff assign speakers to panels by a logic all their own. For all that, it‘s a good panel. Aaron Newton talks about his experience coordinating a local farming program in the rural South. Peter Kilde presents the findings of a task force trying to help poor people and the organizations that serve them get ready for the end of the age of cheap energy. I sketch out the lessons of the 1970s energy crisis for the present. Naomi Davis, an African-American community organizer, comes last, and steals the show with a report on her program to reinvent Chicago neighborhoods as self-supporting and self-governing urban villages. It’s the one really innovative thing I encounter in any of the panels, and deserves the enthusiastic applause it gets.

That evening is Speakers’ Dinner, and a bona fide fanboy moment for me. William Catton is there, of course, and I nervously approach him, say a little about how much Overshoot meant to me, and ask if he’d likea copy of my latest peak oil book, The Wealth of Nature. He graciously accepts, and then flummoxes me completely by offering me a copy of his new book Bottleneck. We talk for around a quarter of an hour. I do my best not to act like a 14-year-old Twilight fan who meets the actor that plays the sparkly vampire, but that’s basically how I feel the whole time; few books influenced me as powerfully as Overshoot, and anyone familiar with Catton’s ideas can find them easily enough right down at the foundations of most of mine.


Meanwhile, in the south of France, the much-ballyhooed G-20 summit meeting is lurching toward what even the mainstream media admit is complete failure. The financial crisis in Europe is the focus of discussion, but nobody seems to be able to come up with any response to the widening spiral of trouble. Reports claim that US officials are pressuring Europe to flood the markets with freshly printed euros; the dire implications of such a step are clearly of less interest to the Obama administration than the impact of a Eurozone fiscal collapse on the American economy, and thus on Obama’s fading reelection prospects.

Meanwhile another head of state, China’s Hu Jintao, has quietly taken center stage. It has been a little over a decade since the old G-7, the exclusive club of core industrial economies, was forced to open its doors to a baker’s dozen of rising powers This time, Hu moves and speaks with the assurance proper to the leader of the world’s next great power. It doesn’t hurt that 200 miles overhead, the Chinese space program has pulled off another impressive feat, docking an unmanned Shenzhou space capsule with Tiangong 1, China’s equivalent to Skylab and Mir and the next step in the Chinese march into space.

The European press spends the days before the G-20 meeting feverishly speculating about the hope that China might bail Europe out of its widening crisis. Nothing of the kind happens, of course; the Chinese would be fools to accept that role this early in the game, and they are anything but. If a bailout offer comes from China at all, it will be much later, when European leaders are desperate enough to accept help on almost any terms, and it will come with a hefty price tag of China’s choosing. By the time the ASPO conference is over, Europe’s heads of state are heading home to a cheerless welcome.


For an imperial capital, Washington DC is surprisingly pedestrian-friendly, and I have no problem making my way Sunday afternoon to a lunch appointment with friends. Saturday was anticlimax; I was on two panels for which apparently nobody did any planning or preparation at all, and which proceeded to ramble aimlessly for their alloted time. Thereafter everything more or less ground to a halt, except for conversations among those who weren’t leaving quite yet.

I head through Chinatown, thinking of conversations over the days just past. I’ve had long talks about the prospects for sail transport, rail lines, and streetcars, with people who know these technologies inside and out; I’ve spent time with some old friends and several new ones, met more of the regular readers of The Archdruid Report, and been asked for advice by younger attendees who, I’m startled and then amused to notice, seem to approach me with pretty much the same diffidence I felt approaching William Catton. It’s more than that, though: this is as close as we have just now to a gathering of the tribe.

There’s a passage from Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian that is on my mind as I walk the streets of this city of faltering empire in this bright November sunlight. Emil Sinclair, the narrator, has come to recognize himself as one of a diffuse and disparate group—call it a circle, an order, a tribe—marked by something half-seen and half spiritual that can be glimpsed in the faces of those who share it. What unites them is not an ideology or an organization, but an orientation toward time, toward the future. The unmarked people around them live their lives in relation to the world as it is, but the ones who wear the mark in their faces are oriented toward a world that does not yet exist.

The friends I meet for lunch have the mark in their faces, and we spend a pleasant couple of hours over burgers and tall glasses of craft beer, talking about beekeeping and brewing and other useful skills for the aftermath of the age of cheap abundant energy. Not long after I’m climbing aboard the train that will take me back home. As the Washington suburbs roll by, I get another cup of tea, but the translation will have to wait for another time; I get out my reading glasses and settle down to read my signed copy of Bottleneck. I am still reading it when the train arrives at my station three hours later. While I have been away, humanity has extracted another 378,000,000 barrels of crude oil, 56,2500,000 tons of coal, and 36,000,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas out of the planet’s steadily depleting reserves.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A Choice of Contemplations

Last week’s post on the problematic nature of binary thinking went out of its way to sidestep the most explosive of the binaries in contemporary industrial culture. That was a necessary evasion; those of my readers who are following the argument I’ve been developing over most of the last two months have now had a week to mull over the point I’ve raised in that post, to consider its pitfalls and possibilities, and to get ready for a hard look the most sacrosanct binary of our time: the binary between society as it is and society as we want it to become.

That’s become a hot issue in the news of late, and a significant part of that unfolds from the presence of the Occupy protests in various downtowns. There’s a complex magical context to that fact. The vast majority of Americans these days believe that something has gone very wrong with their country, but there’s nothing like a national consensus about what has gone wrong, much less how to fix it. By chance or design, the Occupy movement has capitalized on this by refusing to be pinned down to specific demands or specific critiques, mounting a protest in which protest itself is the central content. Tactically speaking, this is brilliant; it’s created a movement that anyone with a grievance can join.

The movement has also displayed a deft hand at the sort of binary thaumaturgy we discussed last week. Over the last few months, it has capably promoted a narrative in which it claims to speak for 99% of Americans while assigning its opponents the remainder. This is a difficult trick for what is, after all, a tiny protest movement supported by a minority of Americans, but I can’t think of an example since Lenin redefined his little revolutionary faction as “the Majority”—that’s what bolshevik means in Russian—where it has been carried off with such aplomb.

As this example may suggest, I’m of two minds about the Occupy phenomenon. If it follows the trajectory mapped out in a recent press release, holds a national convention next July to set out its demands, and forms a third party when those demands aren’t met, American politics could undergo a seismic shift. A successful third party in America rarely remains a third party for long; in 1860, when the Republicans first took the White House, the Whig party imploded and a political landscape that had been fixed in place since the republic’s early decades changed forever. That could happen again, and if it does, it’s probably the Democratic Party’s turn to land face first in history’s compost heap; after three decades pushing policies that could uncharitably but accurately be described as GOP Lite, the Dems are practically defenseless against a strong challenge from further to the left.

Such a challenge might work out well, or it might not. If the movement turns away from the options for change that our constitution provides, though, things become much harder to anticipate, and some of the possible outcomes are very ugly indeed. Mass protest movements, as anyone who’s followed current events knows well, are quite capable of destabilizing a nation, but what comes into being in their wake is a complete crapshoot. It’s never safe to assume that the character of the protests will be reflected in the system they put into power; both the French and Russian revolutions began with lively participatory democracy, and ended in the Terror and the gulags. There’s no certainty that successful mass protest in America will go the same way—but it’s critical for all concerned to realize that it could.

That brings us back in turn to the binary I mentioned above. I sincerely doubt that there’s anyone in America today who doesn’t cherish the thought that if only the right political changes were made, the world would be a much better place. I have such thoughts fairly often, though they’re tempered in my case by the wry realization that the changes I’d most like to see, if put to a popular ballot, would probably not get a single favorable vote other than mine. Daydream politics of this sort are now and then helpful, since that’s one of the ways that people come up with the currently unthinkable notions that will dominate serious politics fifty years from now, but in times of severe social stress they can feed into the sort of unwelcome consequences I’ve outlined above.

The structure of binary logic plays a large role in this. Remember that the binary reaction is meant to produce snap judgments in stressful situations, and it has no gray areas at all; a distant bit of color in a tree is either food or it’s not, the snap of a twig breaking in the forest behind you is either a predator or it’s not, and our australopithecine ancestors didn’t normally have to cope with things that were partly food and partly a predator, and might turn into one or the other depending on how a set of complex processes went. They also didn’t, as far as we know, have to deal with other australopithecines trying to convince them that food was predators and predators were food.

Part of the human predicament is that we do have to deal with such complex choices, where one thing can be an object of desire and an object of fear at the same time; we have to do that with a nervous system that still has most of its australopithecine reactions hardwired into place; and we have to deal with the fact that other people are trying to manipulate us against our best interests using those reactions. Politics is only one of the arenas where this is a major issue, to be sure, but the level of stress in politics is very often higher than elsewhere, and it’s thus far from rare for people who make nuanced judgments in other contexts to fall into extreme binary thinking when it comes to politics.

This is where we get the conviction, which is limited to the fringes in ordinary times but spreads rapidly into the mass of the population in times of extreme social stress, that the existing order of society is the worst possible state of affairs, and that any change to it must therefore be a change for the better. This is binary logic in its purest form: the existing order is bad, therefore whatever replaces the existing order must be good; since the existing order is bad, it’s equated with every other bad thing, even those that contradict each other, while whatever is to replace the existing order, since it’s good, can’t be bad in any sense. Add in white-hot emotions on all sides of the equation, and you get today’s fringe politics—and quite possibly the mainstream politics of tomorrow.

Still, the binary reaction isn’t the only factor at work Another bit of practical psychology that’s been used by operative mages for a very long time also comes into play, especially when the politics of an age are more intently focused on denouncing the existing order than in offering a coherent alternative to it. You’ll find this principle expressed in different ways in magical traditions, but the phrasing I first learned is to my mind the one that expresses it best: what you contemplate, you imitate.

It’s important to realize, before we go on, that this phrase means no more than it says, which is simply that the more attention you focus on something, the more likely you are to imitate it. In particular, it doesn’t mean that you can get anything you want simply by wanting it badly enough, or concentrating on it long enough; your own thoughts, words, and actions will be shaped by whatever most often fills the center of your attention, but if imitating whatever fills the center of your attention won’t get you what you want, the effect isn’t going to help you. Contemplating a new toaster oven, in other words, won’t get you one, it’ll simply make you imitate one—which is not exactly a useful thing under most conditions. If what you want to accomplish can be done by changing your thoughts, words, and actions, on the other hand, contemplation on carefully chosen subjects can accomplish a great deal; this is one of the major working tools of magic.

Like the binary reaction, the contemplation reaction has roots reaching deep into our evolutionary history. One of the reasons that mammals have been the dominant land animals on this planet for the last fifty million years or so is that they evolved the trick of supplementing inherited behavioral patterns with learned ones picked up early in life from one or both parents. Watch kittens learning how to hunt from their mother, and you’re seeing one of the foundations of mammalian dominance; the kittens watch every move intently, and then imitate therepertoire of motions in play. Rinse and repeat, and your kittens have a set of behaviors that are nicely adapted to local conditions. Primates do this even more than other mammals; there’s a reason we all know the phrase "monkey see, monkey do."

Every religious tradition that’s been around long enough to put together a decent collection of magical technique uses the resulting reaction to the hilt. Visit an old-fashioned Catholic or Orthodox church, a Hindu temple, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, or what have you, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a wealth of imagery, designed and created according to precise patterns handed down by tradition, inviting you to contemplation. In religions such as Islam and Judaism, which reject representational images, exactly the same effect is produced by the words of sacred texts that are in many places ablaze with vivid verbal imagery.

A Buddhist burning incense before an image of a bodhisattva, a Christian prayerfully studying the narratives of the Bible, or for that matter a Druid standing with arms outstretched in the midst of circle of trees in the rain, taking part in the dance of the natural world, are all contemplating that which they hope, in their own way, to imitate. All three, and their equivalents in other traditions, are aware of the other side of the balance; the Buddhist affirms the reality of suffering, the Christian likely considers original sin as a fact of existence, the Druid knows full well that the dance of nature also includes pain and death, but the devotional and meditative practices of these and other faiths carefully balance such reflections with a more sustained contemplation of exactly those things the believer seeks to imitate.

Still, the intellectual assent and emotional exaltation of the worshipper in the presence of the holy are not required to give the effect we’re discussing its power. The contemplation effect is remarkably independent of the other activities of the mind, and in particular, it works regardless of the thoughts and feelings you associate with the object of contemplation. One of the more bitterly ironic narratives in recent American history shows this independence in action.

When the neoconservative movement burst on the American scene in the last years of the 20th century, some thinkers in the older and more, well, conservative ends of the American right noted with a good deal of disquiet that the "neocons" had very little in common with conservatism in any historically meaningful sense of that word. In the Anglo-American world, conservatism had its genesis in the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who argued for an organic concept of society, and saw social and political structures as phenomena evolving over time in response to the needs and possibilities of the real world. Burke objected, not to social change—he was a passionate supporter of the American Revolution, for instance—but to the notion, popular among revolutionary ideologues of his time (and of course since then as well), that it was possible to construct a perfect society according to somebody’s abstract plan, and existing social structures should therefore be overthrown so that this could be done.

By and large, Burke’s stance was the intellectual driving force behind Anglo-American conservatism from Burke’s own time until the late twentieth century, though of course—politics being what they are—it was no more exempt from being used as rhetorical camouflage for various crassly selfish projects than were the competing ideas on the other end of the political spectrum. Still, beginning in the 1920s, a radically different sense of what conservatism ought to be took shape on the fringes of the right wing in America and elsewhere, and moved slowly inward over the decades that followed. The rise to power of the neoconservatives in 2000 marked the completion of this trajectory.

This new version of conservatism stood in flat contradiction to Burke and the entire tradition descended from him. It postulated that a perfect society could indeed be brought into being, by following a set of ideological prescriptions set out by Ayn Rand and detailed by an assortment of economists, political scientists, and philosophers, of whom Leo Strauss was the most influential. It called for a grand crusade that would not only make over the United States in the image of its ideal, but spread the same system around the world by any means necessary. It argued that bourgeois sentimentality about human rights and the rule of law should not stand in the way of the glorious capitalist revolution, and went on to create a familiar landscape of prison camps, torture, and aggressive war waged under dubious pretexts. Neoconservatism, in other words, was not conservatism at all; it was to Communism precisely what Satanism is to Christianity, a straightforward inversion that adopted nearly every detail of the Third International’s philosophy, rhetoric and practice and simply reversed some of the value judgments.

The magical principle we’ve just discussed explains this bizarre bit of ideological transformation. The main figures in the neoconservative movement entered public life in one or another of the panics over Communism that swept through the American right every decade or so from 1919 until just before the Soviet Union’s collapse. Like most political panics, these focused obsessively on the feared and hated Other, and a glance back through the biographies of prominent figures in neoconservatism shows plenty of involvement in that pastime. The result of this fixation of attention was utterly predictable to anyone with a grasp of magical theory: what the "neocons" contemplated, they imitated.

The same process can be seen in action all through the culture of denuciation that has replaced civil discourse in so much of contemporary life. From the evangelical preachers whose spluttering polemics about homosexuality provide an interesting counterpoint to their propensity for being caught in compromising positions with their boyfriends, to the militant atheists whose hostility toward religion is neatly matched by their eagerness to match the intolerance and self-righteousness of its least impressive forms, today’s society is well stocked with object lessons relating to this branch of magical philosophy. Still, such reflections are less important just now than the issues raised at the beginning of this essay.

The decision on the part of the Occupy movement to create a protest with protest itself as its only fixed content was, as I suggested earlier, a brilliant tactical stroke. What makes for good tactics, though, may not be equally wise as strategy. If the movement proceeds along the lines mentioned already, moving to the formulation of demands and then to the pursuit of active political goals, it has a good chance of dodging the inherent strategic weaknesses of its tactical choice. The longer it tries to avoid formulating its own coherent vision, though, the more likely it is to find itself following out the implications of someone else’s vision. That may happen by way of the contemplation effect—there’s a reason why revolutions so often end up installing governments all but identical to the ones they overthrow—or by way of any of several other modes of derailment; as history shows, a movement of the kind we’re discussing can run off the rails in any of a remarkable number of ways.

Of course, the peak oil movement is at least as vulnerable to deflection along these same lines. From its beginning, a great many people in that latter movement have focused attention on visions of a very troubled future. That focus was reasonable and indeed inevitable, especially early on; over the last three centuries, and more particularly over the last three decades, modern industrial civilization has backed itself into a very tight corner, and that reality needs to be recognized; trying to imitate a fantasy of sustainable growth by contemplating it, while refusing to recognize the hard material constraints that make it a fantasy, is exactly the kind of confusion between what magic can do and what technology can do that occupied an earlier post in this series. Again, contemplating a toaster oven won’t get you one; it’ll just make you more prone to overheat and burn the toast.

Yet it’s important to balance the recognition of inflexible planetary limits with a clear sense of the way human consciousness responds to such reflections, and to avoid the pitfalls that come from spending too much time contemplating what you don’t want to imitate. There are any number of ways to attain the necessary balance; those of my readers who follow religious, spiritual, or magical traditions have ample resources; those who don’t may find the regular contemplation of nature and natural systems to be an effective response; and of course one of the many reasons why I’ve encouraged readers who are interested in pursuing the "green wizardry" advocated in these posts to collect books and other information sources from the appropriate-tech movement of the 70s is that these tend to be stocked with colorful visions of the future we could have had—and even though that future is water under the micro-hydro turbine at this point, imitating it is by no means a useless strategy even this late in the game.

One way or another, though, what you contemplate, you imitate. Choose your contemplations well.

There are two details I should mention here for the benefit of readers. First, by the time this post goes up I will be at this year’s ASPO-USA conference in Washington DC; I’ve arranged to have comments put through, but won’t be responding to them until I get back.

Second, the anthology of science fiction short stories about a post-peak oil future, which I proposed in a post a little while back, has taken a major step toward realization; after talking to a couple of publishers, I have one that’s interested. I’d like to ask everyone who has a story in the works, but hasn’t yet submitted it, to get it up on the internet and post a link to it in the comments to this post by November 10. Yes, that’s a firm deadline.

I’d also like to ask everybody who’s submitted a story to get me your real name, email address, and mailing address, so I can get in touch with you if your story is selected for the anthology. The easy way to do that is to submit a comment to this post with that info, and a note asking me not to put it through. I’ll copy down the info and delete the post.

I’ve received upwards of fifty stories so far, by the way, ranging from quite readable to stunningly good, and it’s going to take some hard work to winnow the selection down to the 12 or 14 stories that will go into the anthology. Many thanks to all for your submissions, and I hope that even those of you whose stories aren’t selected gain something from the experience.