Wednesday, January 30, 2013

We Don't Live In Neverland

The return to an older American concept of government as the guarantor of the national commons, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, is to my mind one of the crucial steps that might just succeed in making a viable future for the post-imperial United States. A viable future, mind you, does not mean one in which any signficant number of Americans retain any significant fraction of the material abundance we currently get from the “wealth pump” of our global empire. The delusion that we can still live like citizens of an imperial power when the empire has gone away will be enormously popular, not least among those who currently insist they want nothing to do with the imperial system that guarantees their prosperity, but it’s still a delusion.

The end of American empire, it deserves repeating, means the end of a system in which the five per cent of humanity that live in the United States get to dispose of a quarter of the planet’s energy and a third of its raw materials and industrial product.  Even if the fossil fuels that undergird the industrial product weren’t depleting out of existence—and of course they are—the rebalancing of global wealth driven by the decline of one empire and the rise of another will involve massive and often traumatic impacts, especially for those who have been living high on the hog under the current system and will have to get used to a much smaller portion of the world’s wealth in the years immediately ahead. Yes, dear reader, if you live in the United States or its inner circle of allies—Canada, Britain, Australia, Japan, and a few others—this means you.

I want to stress this point, because habits of thought already discussed in this sequence of posts make it remarkably difficult for most Americans to think about a future that isn’t either all warm fuzzy or all cold prickly.  If an imagined future is supposed to be better than the one we’ve got, according to these habits of thought,  it has to be better in every imaginable way, and if it’s worse, it has to be worse just as uniformly.  Suggest that the United States might go hurtling down the far side of its imperial trajectory and come out of the process as a Third World nation, as I’ve done here, and you can count on blank incomprension or self-righteous anger if you go on to suggest that the nation that comes out the other side of this project might still be able to provide a range of basic social goods to its citizens, and might even recover some of the values it lost a century ago in the course of its headlong rush to empire.

Now in fact I’m going to suggest this, and indeed I’ve already sketched out some of the steps that individual Americans might choose to take to lay the foundations for that project.  Still, it’s also worth noting that the same illogic shapes the other end of the spectrum of possible futures.  These days, if you pick up a book offering a vision of a better future or a strategy to get there, it’s usually a safe bet that you can read the thing from cover to cover no reference whatsoever to any downsides, drawbacks, or tradeoffs that might be involved in pursuing the vision or enacting the strategy.  Since every action in the real world has downsides, drawbacks, and tradeoffs, this is not exactly a minor omission, nor does the blithe insistence on ignoring such little details offer any reason to feel confident that the visions and strategies will actually work as advertised.

One example in  particular comes to mind here, because it has immediate relevance to the project of this series of posts.  Those of my readers who have been following the peak oil scene for any length of time will have encountered any number of enthusiastic discussions of relocalization: the process, that is, of disconnecting from the vast and extravagant global networks of production, consumption, and control that define so much of industrial society, in order to restore or reinvent local systems that will be more resilient in the face of energy shortages and other disruptions, and provide more security and more autonomy to those who embrace them.

A very good case can be made for this strategy.  On the one hand, the extreme centralization of the global economy has become a source of massive vulnerabilities straight across the spectrum from the most abstract realms of high finance right down to the sprawling corporate structures that put food on your table.  Shortfalls of every kind, from grain and fuel to financial capital, are becoming a daily reality for many people around the world as soaring energy costs put a galaxy of direct and indirect pressures on brittle and overextended systems.  That’s only going to become worse as petroleum reserves and other vital resources continue to deplete.  As this process continues, ways of getting access to necessities that are deliberately disconnected from the global economic system, and thus less subject to its vulnerabilities, are going to be well worth having in place.

At the same time, participation in the global economy brings with it vulnerabilities of another kind. For anyone who has to depend for their daily survival on the functioning of a vast industrial structure which is not answerable to the average citizen, talk about personal autonomy is little more than a bad joke, and the ability of communities to make their own choices and seek their own futures in such a context is simply another form of wishful thinking.  Many people involved in efforts to relocalize have grasped this, and believe that deliberately standing aside from systems controlled by national governments and multinational corporations offers one of the few options for regaining personal and community autonomy in the face of an increasingly troubled future.

There are more points that can be made in favor of relocalization schemes, and you can find them rehashed endlessly on pro-relocalization websites all over the internet.  For our present purposes, though, this fast tour of the upside will do, because each of these arguments comes with its own downside, which by and large you won’t find mentioned anywhere on those same websites.

The downside to the first argument?  When you step out of the global economy, you cut yourself off from the imperial wealth pump that provides people in America with the kind of abundance they take for granted, and the lifestyles that are available in the absence of that wealth pump are far more restricted, and far more impoverished, than most would-be relocalizers like to think.  Peasant cultures around the world are by and large cultures of poverty, and there’s a good reason for that:  by the time you, your family, and the other people of your village have provided food on the table, thatch on the roof, a few necessary possessions, and enough of the local equivalent of cash to cover payments to the powers that be, whether those happen to be feudal magnates or the local property tax collector, you’ve just accounted for every minute of labor you can squeeze out of a day.

That’s the rock on which the back-to-the-land movement of the Sixties broke; the life of a full-time peasant farmer scratching a living out of the soil is viable, and it may even be rewarding, but it’s not the kind of life that the pampered youth of the Baby Boom era was willing to put up with for more than a fairly brief interval. It may well be that economic relocalization is still the best available option for dealing with the ongoing unraveling of the industrial economy—in fact, I’d agree that this is the case—but I wonder how many of its proponents have grappled with the fact that what they’re proposing may amount to no more than a way to starve with dignity while many others are starving without it.

The downside to the second argument is subtler, but in some ways even more revealing.  The best way to grasp it is to imagine two relocalization projects, one in Massachusetts and the other in South Carolina. The people in both groups are enthusiastic about the prospect of regaining their personal autonomy from the faceless institutions of a centralized society, and just as eager to to bring back home to their own communities the power to make choices and pursue a better future.  Now ask yourself this:  what will these two groups do if they get that power?  And what will the people in Massachusetts think about what the people in South Carolina will do once they get that power?

I’ve conducted a modest experiment of sorts along these lines, by reminding relocalization fans in blue states what people in red states are likely to do with the renewed local autonomy the people in the blue states want for themselves, and vice versa.  Every so often, to be sure, I run across someone—more often on the red side of the line than on the blue one—whose response amounts to “let ‘em do what they want, so long as they let us do what we want.”  Far more often, though, people on either side are horrified to realize that their opposite numbers on the other side of America’s widening cultural divide would use relocalization to enact their own ideals in their own communities. 

More than once, in fact, the response has amounted to a flurry of proposals to hedge relocalization about with restrictions so that it can only be used to support the speaker’s own political and social agendas, with federal bureaucracies hovering over every relocalizing community, ready to pounce on any sign that a community might try to do something that would offend sensibilities in Boston or San Francisco, on the one hand, or the Bible Belt on the other.  You might think, dear reader, that it would be obvious that this would be relocalization in name only; you might also think that it would be just as obvious that those same bureaucracies would fall promptly into the hands of the same economic and political interests that have made the current system as much of a mess as it is.  Permit me to assure you that in my experience, among a certain segment of the people who like to talk about relocalization, these things are apparently not obvious at all.

By this point in the discussion, I suspect most of my readers have come to believe that I’m opposed to relocalization schemes.  Quite the contrary, I think they’re among the best options we have, and the fact that they have significant downsides, drawbacks, and tradeoffs does not nullify that. Every possible strategy, again, has downsides, drawbacks, and tradeoffs; whatever we choose to do to face the onset of the Long Descent, as individuals, as communities, or as a nation, problems are going to ensue and people are going to get hurt.  Trying to find an option that has no downsides simply guarantees that we will do nothing at all; and in that case, equally, problems are going to ensue and people are going to get hurt.  That’s how things work in the real world—and it may be worth reminding my readers that we don’t live in Neverland.

Thus I’d like to suggest that a movement toward relocalization is another crucial ingredient of a viable post-imperial America. In point of fact, we’ve got the structures in place to do the thing already; the only thing that’s lacking is a willingness to push back, hard, against certain dubious habits in the US political system that have rendered those structures inoperative.

Back in 1787, when the US constitution was written, the cultural differences between Massachusetts and South Carolina were very nearly as sweeping as they are today.  That’s one of the reasons why the constitution as written left most internal matters in the hands of the individual states, and assigned to the federal government only those functions that concerned the national commons as a whole:  war, foreign policy, minting money, interstate trade, postal services, and a few other things.  The list was expanded in a modest way before the rush to empire, so that public health and civil rights, for example, were brought under federal supervision over the course of the 19th century. Under the theory of government I described last week, these were reasonable extensions, since they permitted the federal government to exercise its function of securing the national commons.

Everything else remained in the hands of the states and the people. In fact, the tenth amendment to the US constitution specifically requires that any power not granted to the federal government in so many words be left to the states and the people—a principle which, perhaps not surprisingly, has been roundly ignored by everyone in Washington DC for most of a century now.  Under the constitution and its first nineteen amendments, in fact, the states were very nearly separate countries who happened to have an army, navy, foreign policy, and postal system in common.

Did that system have problems?  You bet.  What rights you had and what benefits you could expect as a citizen depended to a huge extent on where you lived—not just which state, but very often which county and which township or city as well.  Whole classes of citizens might be deprived of their rights or the protection of the laws by local politicians or the majorities that backed them, and abuses of power were pervasive.  All of that sounds pretty dreadful, until you remember that the centralization of power that came with America’s pursuit of empire didn’t abolish any of those things; it simply moved them to a national level.  Nowadays, serving the interests of the rich and influential at the expense of the public good is the job of the federal government, rather than the local sheriff, and the denial of civil rights and due process that used to be restricted to specific ethnic and economic subgroups within American society now gets applied much more broadly.

Furthermore, one of the things that’s rendered the US government all but incapable of taking any positive action at all in the face of a widening spiral of crises is precisely the insistence, by people in Massachusetts, South Carolina, and the other forty-eight states as well, that their local views and values ought to be the basis of national policy.  The rhetoric that results, in tones variously angry and plaintive, amounts to “Why can’t everyone else be reasonable and do it my way?”—which is not a good basis for the spirit of compromise necessary to the functioning of democracy, though it makes life easy for advocacy groups who want to shake down the citizenry for another round of donations to pay for the never-ending fight.

One of the few things that might succeed in unsticking the gridlock, so that the federal government could get back to doing the job it’s supposed to do, would be to let the people in Massachusetts, South Carolina, and the other forty-eight states pursue the social policies they prefer on a state by state basis. Yes, that would mean that people in South Carolina would do things that outraged the people in Massachusetts, and people in Massachusetts would return the favor.  Yes, it would also mean that abuses and injustices would take place.  Of course abuses and injustices take place now, in both states and all the others as well, but the ones that would take place in the wake of a transfer of power over social issues back to the states would no doubt be at least a little different from the current ones. 

Again, the point of relocalization schemes is not that they will solve every problem.  They won’t, and in fact they will certainly cause new problems we don’t have yet.  The point of relocalization schemes is that, all things considered, if they’re pursued intelligently, the problems that they will probably solve are arguably at least a little worse than the problems that they will probably cause. Does that sound like faint praise?  It’s not; it’s as much as can be expected for any policy this side of Neverland, in the real world, where every solution brings new problems of its own.

Now in fact relocalization has at least two other benefits that tip the balance well into positive territory. One of them is an effect I haven’t discussed in this series of posts, and I haven’t seen covered anywhere else in the peak oil blogosphere yet; it will need a post of its own, and that will have to wait a week.  The other, though, is a simple matter of resilience. 

The more territory has to be governed from a single political center, all things considered, the more energy and resources will be absorbed in the process of governing.  This is why, before the coming of the industrial age, nations on the scale of the present United States of America rarely existed, and when they did come into being, they generally didn’t last for more than a short time.  In an age of declining energy availability and depleting resources, the maintenance costs of today’s sprawling, centralized United States government won’t be affordable for long.  Devolving all nonessential functions of the central government to the individual states, as the US constitution mandates, might just cut costs to the point that some semblance of civil peace and democratic governance can hang on for the long term.

That probably doesn’t seem like much to those whose eyes are fixed on fantasies of a perfect world, and are convinced they can transform it from fantasy to reality as soon as everyone else stops being unreasonable and agrees with them. Still, it’s better than most potential outcomes available to us in the real world—and again, we don’t live in Neverland.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Restoring the Commons

The hard work of rebuilding a post-imperial America, as I suggested in last week’s post, is going to require the recovery or reinvention of many of the things this nation chucked into the dumpster with whoops of glee as it took off running in pursuit of its imperial ambitions. The basic skills of democratic process are among the things on that list; so, as I suggested last month, are the even more basic skills of learning and thinking that undergird the practice of democracy.

All that remains crucial. Still, it so happens that a remarkably large number of the other things that will need to be put back in place are all variations of a common theme.  What’s more, it’s a straightforward theme—or, more precisely, would be straightforward if so many people these days weren’t busy trying to pretend that the concept at its center either doesn’t exist or doesn’t present the specific challenges that have made it so problematic in recent years. The concept in question?  The mode of collective participation in the use of resources, extending from the most material to the most abstract, that goes most often these days by the name of “the commons.”

The redoubtable green philosopher Garrett Hardin played a central role decades ago in drawing attention to the phenomenon in question with his essay The Tragedy of the Commons.  It’s a remarkable work, and it’s been rendered even more remarkable by the range of contortions engaged in by thinkers across the economic and political spectrum in their efforts to evade its conclusions.  Those maneuvers have been tolerably successful; I suspect, for example, that many of my readers will recall the flurry of claims a few years back that the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom had “disproved” Hardin with her work on the sustainable management of resources.

In point of fact, she did no such thing.  Hardin demonstrated in his essay that an unmanaged commons faces the risk of a vicious spiral of mismanagement that ends in the common’s destruction; Ostrom got her Nobel, and deservedly so, by detailed and incisive analysis of the kinds of management that prevent Hardin’s tragedy of the commons from taking place. A little later in this essay, we’ll get to why those kinds of management are exactly what nobody in the mainstream of American public life wants to talk about just now; the first task at hand is to walk through the logic of Hardin’s essay and understand exactly what he was saying and why it matters.

Hardin asks us to imagine a common pasture, of the sort that was common in medieval villages across Europe. The pasture is owned by the village as a whole; each of the villagers has the right to put his cattle out to graze on the pasture.  The village as a whole, however, has no claim on the milk the cows produce; that belongs to the villager who owns any given cow.  The pasture is a collective resource, from which individuals are allowed to extract private profit; that’s the basic definition of a commons.

In the Middle Ages, such arrangements were common across Europe, and they worked well because they were managed by tradition, custom, and the immense pressure wielded by informal consensus in small and tightly knit communities, backed up where necessary by local manorial courts and a body of customary law that gave short shrift to the pursuit of personal advantage at the expense of others.  The commons that Hardin asks us to envision, though, has no such protections in place.  Imagine, he says, that one villager buys additional cows and puts them out to graze on the common pasture. Any given pasture can only support so many cows before it suffers damage; to use the jargon of the ecologist, it has a fixed carrying capacity for milk cows, and exceeding the carrying capacity will degrade the resource and lower its future carrying capacity. Assume that the new cows raise the total number of cows past what the pasture can support indefinitely, so once the new cows go onto the pasture, the pasture starts to degrade.

Notice how the benefits and costs sort themselves out.  The villager with the additional cows receives all the benefit of the additional milk his new cows provide, and he receives it right away.  The costs of his action, by contrast, are shared with everyone else in the village, and their impact is delayed, since it takes time for pasture to degrade.  Thus, according to today’s conventional economic theories, the villager is doing the right thing. Since the milk he gets is worth more right now than the fraction of the discounted future cost of the degradation of the pasture he will eventually have to carry, he is pursuing his own economic interest in a rational manner.

The other villagers, faced with this situation, have a choice of their own to make.  (We’ll assume, again, that they don’t have the option of forcing the villager with the new cows to get rid of them and return the total herd on the pasture to a level it can support indefinitely.)  They can do nothing, in which case they bear the costs of the degradation of the pasture but gain nothing in return, or they can buy more cows of their own, in which case they also get more milk, but the pasture degrades even faster. According to most of today’s economic theories, the latter choice is the right one, since it allows them to maximize their own economic interest in exactly the same way as the first villager. The result of the process, though, is that a pasture that would have kept a certain number of cattle fed indefinitely is turned into a barren area of compacted subsoil that won’t support any cattle at all.  The rational pursuit of individual advantage thus results in permanent impoverishment for everybody.

This may seem like common sense.  It is common sense, but when Hardin first published “The Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, it went off like a bomb in the halls of academic economics. Since Adam Smith’s time, one of the most passionately held beliefs of capitalist economics has been the insistence that individuals pursuing their own economic interest without interference from government or anyone else will reliably produce the best outcome for everybody.  You’ll still hear defenders of free market economics making that claim, as if nobody but the Communists ever brought it into question.  That’s why very few people like to talk about Hardin’s tragedy of the commons these days; it makes it all but impossible to uphold a certain bit of popular, appealing, but dangerous nonsense.

Does this mean that the rational pursuit of individual advantage always produces negative results for everyone?  Not at all.  The theorists of capitalism can point to equally cogent examples in which Adam Smith’s invisible hand passes out benefits to everyone, and a case could probably be made that this happens more often than the opposite.  The fact remains that the opposite does happen, not merely in theory but also in the real world, and that the consequences of the tragedy of the commons can reach far beyond the limits of a single village.

Hardin himself pointed to the destruction of the world’s oceanic fisheries by overharvesting as an example, and it’s a good one.  If current trends continue, many of my readers can look forward, over the next couple of decades, to tasting the last seafood they will ever eat.  A food resource that could have been managed sustainably for millennia to come is being annihilated in our lifetimes, and the logic behind it is that of the tragedy of the commons:  participants in the world’s fishing industries, from giant corporations to individual boat owners and their crews, are pursuing their own economic interests, and exterminating one fishery after another in the process.

Another example?  The worldwide habit of treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer into which wastes can be dumped with impunity.  Every one of my readers who burns any fossil fuel, for any purpose, benefits directly from being able to vent the waste CO2 directly into the atmosphere, rather than having to cover the costs of disposing of it in some other way.  As a result of this rational pursuit of personal economic interest, there’s a very real chance that most of the world’s coastal cities will have to be abandoned to the rising oceans over the next century or so, imposing trillions of dollars of costs on the global economy.

Plenty of other examples of the same kind could be cited.  At this point, though, I’d like to shift focus a bit to a different class of phenomena, and point to the Glass-Steagall Act, a piece of federal legislation that was passed by the US Congress in 1933 and repealed in 1999.  The Glass-Steagall Act made it illegal for banks to engage in both consumer banking activities such as taking deposits and making loans, and investment banking activities such as issuing securities; banks had to choose one or the other. The firewall between consumer banking and investment banking was put in place because in its absence, in the years leading up to the 1929 crash, most of the banks in the country had gotten over their heads in dubious financial deals linked to stocks and securities, and the collapse of those schemes played a massive role in bringing the national economy to the brink of total collapse.

By the 1990s, such safeguards seemed unbearably dowdy to a new generation of bankers, and after a great deal of lobbying the provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act were eliminated.  Those of my readers who didn’t spend the last decade hiding under a rock know exactly what happened thereafter:  banks went right back to the bad habits that got their predecessors into trouble in 1929, profited mightily in the short term, and proceeded to inflict major damage on the global economy when the inevitable crash came in 2008.

That is to say, actions performed by individuals (and those dubious “legal persons” called corporations) in the pursuit of their own private economic advantage garnered profits over the short term for those who engaged in them, but imposed long-term costs on everybody.  If this sounds familiar, dear reader, it should.  When individuals or corporations profit from their involvement in an activity that imposes costs on society as a whole, that activity functions as a commons, and if that commons is unmanaged the tragedy of the commons is a likely result.  The American banking industry before 1933 and after 1999 functioned, and currently functions, as an unmanaged commons; between those years, it was a managed commons.  While it was an unmanaged commons, it suffered from exactly the outcome Hardin’s theory predicts; when it was a managed commons, by contrast, a major cause of banking failure was kept at bay, and the banking sector was more often a source of strength than a source of weakness to the national economy.

It’s not hard to name other examples of what I suppose we could call “commons-like phenomena”—that is, activities in which the pursuit of private profit can impose serious costs on society as a whole—in contemporary America.  One that bears watching these days is food safety.  It is to the immediate financial advantage of businesses in the various industries that produce food for human consumption to cut costs as far as possible, even if this occasionally results in unsafe products that cause sickness and death to people who consume them; the benefits in increased profits are immediate and belong entirely to the business, while the costs of increased morbidity and mortality are borne by society as a whole, provided that your legal team is good enough to keep the inevitable lawsuits at bay.  Once again, the asymmetry between benefits and costs produces a calculus that brings unwelcome outcomes.

The American political system, in its pre-imperial and early imperial stages, evolved a distinctive response to these challenges. The Declaration of Independence, the wellspring of American political thought, defines the purpose of government as securing the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  There’s more to that often-quoted phrase than meets the eye.  In particular, it doesn’t mean that governments are supposed to provide anybody with life, liberty, or happiness; their job is simply to secure for their citizens certain basic rights, which may be inalienable—that is, they can’t be legally transferred to somebody else, as they could under feudal law—but are far from absolute. What citizens do with those rights is their own business, at least in theory, so long as their exercise of their rights does not interfere too drastically with the ability of others to do the same thing.  The assumption, then and later, was that citizens would use their rights to seek their own advantage, by means as rational or irrational as they chose, while the national community as a whole would cover the costs of securing those rights against anyone and anything that attempted to erase them.

That is to say, the core purpose of government in the American tradition is the maintenance of the national commons. It exists to manage the various commons and commons-like phenomena that are inseparable from life in a civilized society, and thus has the power to impose such limits on people (and corporate pseudopeople) as will prevent their pursuit of personal advantage from leading to a tragedy of the commons in one way or another.  Restricting the capacity of banks to gamble with depositors’ money is one such limit; restricting the freedom of manufacturers to sell unsafe food is another, and so on down the list of reasonable regulations.  Beyond those necessary limits, government has no call to intervene; how people choose to live their lives, exercise their liberties, and pursue happiness is up to them, so long as it doesn’t put the survival of any part of the national commons at risk.

As far as I know, you won’t find that definition taught in any of the tiny handful of high schools that still offer civics classes to young Americans about to reach voting age. Still, it’s a neat summary of generations of political thought in pre-imperial and early imperial America.  These days, by contrast, it’s rare to find this function of government even hinted at.  Rather, the function of government in late imperial America is generally seen as a matter of handing out largesse of various kinds to any group organized or influential enough to elbow its way to a place at the feeding trough. Even those people who insist they are against all government entitlement programs can be counted on to scream like banshees if anything threatens those programs from which they themselves benefit; the famous placard reading “Government Hands Off My Medicare” is an embarrassingly good reflection of the attitude that most American pseudoconservatives adopt in practice, however loudly they decry government spending in theory.

A strong case can be made, though, for jettisoning the notion of government as national sugar daddy and returning to the older notion of government as guarantor of the national commons.  The central argument in that case is simply that in the wake of empire, the torrents of imperial tribute that made the government largesse of the recent past possible in the first place will go away.  As the United States loses the ability to command a quarter of the world’s energy supplies and a third of its natural resources and industrial product, and has to make do with the much smaller share it can expect to produce within its own borders, the feeding trough in Washington DC—not to mention its junior equivalents in the fifty state capitals, and so on down the pyramid of American government—is going to run short.

In point of fact, it’s already running short.  That’s the usually unmentioned factor behind the intractable gridlock in our national politics:  there isn’t enough largesse left to give every one of the pressure groups and veto blocs its accustomed share, and the pressure groups and veto blocs are responding to this unavoidable problem by jamming up the machinery of government with ever more frantic efforts to get whatever they can.  That situation can only end in crisis, and probably in a crisis big enough to shatter the existing order of things in Washington DC; after the rubble stops bouncing, the next order of business will be piecing together some less gaudily corrupt way of managing the nation’s affairs.

That process of reconstruction might be furthered substantially if the pre-imperial concept of the role of government were to get a little more air time these days.  I’ve spoken at quite some length here and elsewhere about the very limited contribution that grand plans and long discussions can make to an energy future that’s less grim than the one toward which we’re hurtling at the moment, and there’s a fair bit of irony in the fact that I’m about to suggest exactly the opposite conclusion with regard to the political sphere.  Still, the circumstances aren’t the same.  The time for talking about our energy future was decades ago, when we still had the time and the resources to get new and more sustainable energy and transportation systems in place before conventional petroleum production peaked and sent us skidding down the far side of Hubbert’s peak.  That time is long past, the options remaining to us are very narrow, and another round of conversation won’t do anything worthwhile to change the course of events at this point.

That’s much less true of the political situation, because politics are subject to rules very different from the implacable mathematics of petroleum depletion and net energy.  At some point in the not too distant future, the political system of the United States of America is going to tip over into explosive crisis, and at that time ideas that are simply talking points today have at least a shot at being enacted into public policy. That’s exactly what happened at the beginning of the three previous cycles of anacyclosis I traced out in a previous post in this series.  In 1776, 1860, and 1933, ideas that had been on the political fringes not that many years beforehand redefined the entire political dialogue, and in all three cases this was possible because those once-fringe ideas had been widely circulated and widely discussed, even though most of the people who circulated and discussed them never imagined that they would live to see those ideas put into practice.

There are plenty of ideas about politics and society in circulation on the fringes of today’s American dialogue, to be sure.  I’d like to suggest, though, that there’s a point to reviving an older, pre-imperial vision of what government can do, and ought to do, in the America of the future.  A political system that envisions its role as holding an open space in which citizens can pursue their own dreams and experiment with their own lives is inherently likely to be better at dissensus than more regimented alternatives, whether those come from the left or the right—and dissensus, to return to a central theme of this blog, is the best strategy we’ve got as we move into a future where nobody can be sure of having the right answers.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Road Down from Empire

Here in the Appalachians, at least, there’s something about the month of January that encourages sober thoughts.  Maybe it’s the weather, which is pretty reliably gray and cold; maybe it’s the arrival of the bills from the holiday season just ended, or the awkward way that those bills usually arrive about the same time that the annual crop of New Year’s resolutions start landing in the recycle bin.  Pick your reason, but one way or another it seems like a good time to circle back and finish up the theme I’ve been developing here for most of a year now, the decline and fall of America’s global empire and the difficult task of rebuilding something worthwhile in its wake.
 
The hard work of reinventing democracy in a post-imperial America, the subject of several of last month’s posts, is only one facet of this broader challenge.  I’ve mentioned before that the pursuit of empire is a drug, and like most other drugs, it makes you feel great at the time and then wallops you the next morning.  It’s been just over a hundred years now since the United States launched itself on its path to global empire, and the hangover that was made inevitable by that century-long bender is waiting in the wings.  I suspect one of the reasons the US government is frantically going through the empties in the trash, looking for one that still has a few sips left in it, is precisely that first dim dawning awareness of just how bad the hangover is going to be.

It’s worth taking a few moments to go over some of the more visible signposts of the road down from empire.  To begin with, the US economy has been crippled by a century of imperial tribute flowing in from overseas.  That’s what happened to our manufacturing sector; once the rest of the industrial world recovered from the Second World War, manufacturers in an inflated tribute economy couldn’t compete with the lower costs of factories in less extravagantly overfunded parts of the world, and America’s industrial heartland turned into the Rust Belt.  As the impact of the tribute economy spread throughout US society, in turn, it became next to impossible to make a living doing anything productive, and gaming the imperial system in one way or another—banking, investment, government contracts, you name it—turned into the country’s sole consistent growth industry.

That imposed distortions on every aspect of American society, which bid fair to cripple its ability to pick up the pieces when the empire goes away.  As productive economic sectors withered, the country’s educational system reoriented itself toward the unproductive, churning out an ever-expanding range of administrative specialties for corporations and government while shutting down what was once a world-class system of vocational and trade schools.  We now have far more office fauna than any sane society needs, and a drastic shortage of people who have any less abstract skill set.  For the time being, we can afford to offshore jobs, or import people from other countries to do them at substandard wages; as our empire winds down and those familiar bad habits stop being possible, the shortage of Americans with even the most basic practical skills will become a massive economic burden.

Meanwhile the national infrastructure is caught in a downward spiral of malign neglect made inevitable by the cash crunch that always hits empires on the way down.  Empire is an expensive habit;  the long-term effects of the imperial wealth pump on those nations subjected to its business end mean that the income from imperial arrangements goes down over time, while the impact of the tribute economy at home generally causes the costs of empire go up over time.  The result can be seen on Capitol Hill day by day, as one fantastically expensive weapons system after another sails through Congress with few dissenting votes, while critically important domestic programs are gutted by bipartisan agreement, or bog down in endless bickering.  The reliable result is a shell of a nation, seemingly strong when observed from outside but hollowing out within, and waiting for the statistically inevitable shove that will launch it on its final skid down the rough slope into history’s compost bin.

You may well be thinking, dear reader, that the logical response of a nation caught in a predicament of this sort would be to bite the bullet, back away from empire in a deliberate fashion, and use the last bit of income from the tribute economy to pay for the expenses of rebuilding a domestic economy of a more normal kind.  You’d be right, too, but there are compelling reasons why very few empires in history have had the great good sense to manage their decline in this manner.  Imperial China did it in the fifteenth century, scrapping a burgeoning maritime empire in the Indian Ocean, and of course Britain did it after 1945, though that was largely because a 500-pound gorilla named the United States was sitting on Britannia’s prostrate body, informing her politely that in future, the global empire would be American, thank you very much; other than that, examples are few and far between.

The logic here is easy to follow.  Any attempt to withdraw from imperial commitments will face concerted resistance from those who profit from the status quo, while those who claim to oppose empire are rarely willing to keep supporting a policy of imperial retreat once it turns out, as it inevitably does, that the costs of that policy will include a direct impact on their own incomes or the value of their investments. Thus politicians who back a policy of withdrawal from empire can count on being pilloried by their opponents as traitors to their country, and abandoned by erstwhile allies who dislike empire in the abstract but want to retain lifestyles that only an imperial tribute economy can support.  Since politicians are, after all, in the business of getting into office and staying there, their enthusiasm for such self-sacrificing policies is understandably limited.

The usual result is a frantic effort to kick the can as far as possible down the road, so that somebody else has to deal with it.  Most of what’s going on in Washington DC these days can be described very exactly in those terms.  Despite popular rhetoric, America’s politicians these days are not unusually wicked or ignorant; they are, by and large, roughly as ethical as their constituents, and rather better educated—though admittedly neither of these is saying much.  What distinguishes them from the statesmen of an earlier era, rather, is that they are face to face with an insoluble dilemma that their predecessors in office spent the last few decades trying to ignore.  As the costs of empire rise, the profits of empire dwindle, the national economy circles the drain, the burden of deferred maintenance on the nation’s infrastructure grows, and the impact of the limits to growth on industrial civilization worldwide becomes ever harder to evade, they face the unenviable choice between massive trouble now and even more massive trouble later; being human, they repeatedly choose the latter, and console themselves with the empty hope that something might turn up.

It’s a common hope these days. I’ve commented here more than once about the way that the Rapture, the Singularity, and all the other apocalyptic fantasies on offer these days serve primarily as a means by which people can pretend to themselves that the future they’re going to get isn’t the one that their actions and evasions are busily creating for them.  The same is true of a great many less gaudy fictions about the future—the much-ballyhooed breakthroughs that never quite get around to happening, the would-be mass movements that never attract anyone but the usual handful of activists, the great though usually unspecified leaps in consciousness that will allegedly happen any day now, and all the rest of it.  The current frenzy of meretricious twaddle in the media about how shale gas is going to make the US a net energy exporter gets a good share of its impetus from the same delusive hope—though admittedly the fact that a great many people have invested a great deal of money in companies in the fracking business, and are trying to justify their investments using the same sort of reasoning that boosted the late housing bubble, also has more than a little to do with it.

There’s likely to be plenty more of the same thing in the decades ahead.  Social psychologists have written at length about what James Howard Kunstler has usefully termed the psychology of previous investment, the process by which people convince themselves to throw bad money after good, or to remain committed to a belief system even though all available evidence demonstrates that it isn’t true and doesn’t work.  The critical factor in such cases is the emotional cost of admitting that the decision to buy the stock, adopt the belief system, or make whatever other mistake is at issue, was in fact a mistake. The more painful it is to make that admission, the more forcefully most people will turn away from the necessity to do so, and it’s safe to assume that they’ll embrace the most consummate malarkey if doing so allows them to insist to themselves that the mistake wasn’t a mistake after all.

As America stumbles down from its imperial peak,  in other words, the one growth industry this country will have left will consist of efforts to maintain the pretense that America doesn’t have an empire, that the empire isn’t falling, and that the fall doesn’t matter anyway. (Yes, those statements are mutually contradictory.  Get used to it; you’ll be hearing plenty of statements in the years to come that are even more more incoherent.)  As the decline accelerates, anyone who offers Americans a narrative that allows them to pretend they’ll get the shiny new future that our national mythology promises them will be able to count on a large and enthusiastic audience.  The narratives being marketed for this purpose need not be convincing; they need not even be sane.  So long as they make it possible for Americans to maintain the fiction of a brighter future in the teeth of the facts, they’ll be popular.

The one bit of hope I can offer here is that such efforts at collective make-believe don’t last forever.  Sooner or later, the fact of decline will be admitted and, later still, accepted; sooner or later, our collective conversation will shift from how America can maintain perpetual growth to how America can hold onto what it has, then to how America can recover some of what it lost, and from there to figuring out how America—or whatever grab bag of successor societies occupies the territory currently held by the United States—can get by in the harsh new deindustrial world that grew up around it while nobody was looking.  It’s a normal process in an age of decline, and can be traced in the literature of more than one civilization before ours.

It bears remembering, though, that individuals are going through the same process of redefinition all by themselves.  This process differs from the five stages of peak oil, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, in that it’s not primarily about the emotional impact of loss; it’s a matter of expectations, and of the most pragmatic sort of economic expectations at that.  Consider a midlevel managerial employee in some corporation or other whose job, like so many other jobs these days, is about to go away forever.  Before the rumors start flying, she’s concerned mostly with clawing her way up the corporate ladder and increasing her share of the perks and privileges our society currently grants to its middle classes.  Then the rumors of imminent layoffs start flying, and she abruptly has to shift her focus to staying employed.  The pink slips come next, bearing bad news, and her focus shifts again, to getting a new job; when that doesn’t happen and the reality of long term joblessness sinks in, a final shift of focus takes place, and she has to deal with a new and challenging world.

This has already happened to a great many people in America.  It’s going to happen, over the years ahead, to a great many more—probably, all things considered, to a large majority of people in the American middle class, just as it happened to a large majority of the industrial working class a few decades further back.  Not everyone, it has to be said, will survive the transition; alcoholism, drug abuse, mental and physical illness, and suicide are among the standard risks run by the downwardly mobile.  A fair number of those who do survive will spend the rest of their lives clinging to the vain hope that something will happen and give them back what they lost. 

It’s a long, rough road down from empire, and the losses involved are not merely material in nature. Basing one’s identity on the privileges and extravagances made possible by the current US global empire may seem like a silly thing to do, but it’s very common.  To lose whatever markers of status are respected in any given social class, whether we’re talking about a private jet and a Long Island mansion, a fashionable purse and a chic condo in an upscale neighborhood, or a pickup and a six-pack, can be tantamount to losing one’s identity if that identity has no more solid foundation—and a great many marketing firms have spent decades trying to insure that most Americans never think of looking for more solid foundations.

That last point has implications we’ll be exploring in a later sequence of posts.  For the time being, though, I want to talk a bit about what all this means to those of my readers who have already come to terms with the reality of decline, and are trying to figure out how to live their lives in a world in which the conventional wisdom of the last three hundred years or so has suddenly been turned on its head. The first and, in many ways, the most crucial point is one that’s been covered here repeatedly already:  you are going to have to walk the road down from empire yourself.  Nobody else is going to do it for you, and you can’t even assume that anybody else will make it easier for you.  What you can do, to make it a little easier than it will otherwise be, is to start walking it before you have to.

That means, to return to a slogan I’ve used more than once in this blog, using LESS—Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation.  The more energy you need to maintain your everyday lifestyle, the more vulnerable you’ll be to sudden disruptions when the sprawling infrastructure that supplies you with that energy starts having running into serious trouble.  Today, routine blackouts and brownouts of the electrical grid, and rationing or unpredictable availability of motor fuel, have become everyday facts of life in Third World nations that used to have relatively reliable access to energy.  As America’s global empire unravels and the blowback from a century of empire comes home to roost, we can expect the same thing here.  Get ready for that in advance, and you won’t face a crisis when it happens.

The same is true of the extravagant material inputs most Americans see as necessities, and of the constant stream of sensory stimulation that most Americans use to numb themselves to the unwelcome aspects of their surroundings and their lives.  You will be doing without those at some point.  The sooner you learn how to get by in their absence, the better off you’ll be—and the sooner you get out from under the torrent of media noise you’ve been taught to use to numb yourself, the sooner you can start assessing the world around you with a relatively clear head, and the sooner you’ll notice just how far down the arc of America’s descent we’ve already come.

Using LESS isn’t the only thing that’s worth doing in advance, of course.  I’ve discussed elsewhere, for example, the need to develop the skills that will enable you to produce goods or provide services for other people, using relatively simple tools and, if at all possible, the energy of your own muscles.  As the imperial tribute economy winds down and the United States loses the ability to import cheap goods and cheap labor from abroad, people will still need goods and services, and will pay for them with whatever measure of value is available—even if that amounts to their own unskilled labor.  There are plenty of other steps that can be taken to prepare for life in a post-imperial society skidding down the far side of Hubbert’s peak, and the sooner you start taking those steps, the better prepared you will be to cope with that unfamiliar world.

Still, it may be possible to go further than that.  In several of December’s posts here I raised the possibility that, in the wake of empire, the deliberate cultivation of certain core skills—specifically, clear reasoning, public speaking, and democratic process—might make it possible to kickstart a revival of America’s formerly vibrant democratic traditions. The same principle, I’d like to suggest, may be able to be applied more generally.  Certain core insights that were central to pre-imperial America’s more praiseworthy achievements, but were tossed into the dumpster during the rush to empire, could be revived and put back to work in the post-imperial era.  If that can be done at all, it’s going to involve a lot of work and a willingness to challenge some widely held notions of contemporary American culture, but I think the attempt is worth making.  We’ll begin that discussion next week.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

A Wish List for Krampus

It's always a bit of a gamble to sit down at the computer and start writing one of these weekly posts.  I don’t know how it works for other writers, but for me, the writing process is inherently unpredictable; I may think I know what I’m going to write, but once the fingertips get within range of the keyboard, all bets are off.  A news story off the net, a stray passage from some old book, a series of those things we like to call coincidences because we haven’t yet noticed that a belief in coincidence is the most popular superstition of the age of science—take your pick, it can be any of those things or others, but all of a sudden what should have been a quiet evening of sipping tea and anatomizing the decline and fall of industrial civilization becomes a leap into the dark.
 
This time, it was a question raised by a reader of last week’s post.  That post, as my readers will recall, ended with some suggestions about how readers in the world’s industrial nations might consider changing their own lives, to cut back on the burden their lifestyles put on the living Earth. The reader in question applauded those suggestions, but asked what suggestions I might have if I were addressing an audience of scientists and engineers—that is, people who might be able to come up with new technologies to help cushion our species’ face-first collision with the brick wall of planetary limits. What would I want them to explore?

I confess the question took me entirely by surprise, and I stammered something about how it was an interesting point, but I didn’t expect ever to have the chance to address an audience of scientists and engineers along those lines.  Of course the inevitable result followed promptly, as an assortment of scientists and engineers popped up to say that they were regular readers of mine, and they would be interested in hearing my suggestions for what they could do.

It’s a far more complex question than it might seem at first glance.  To begin with, there are at least two limits that nearly all attempts to imagine technologies for the future systematically duck. The first of those limits come out of the laws of thermodynamics, which dictate that the amount of work you can get out of any energy source is a function of the difference between the concentration of energy in that energy source and the background concentration in the environment. Fossil fuels are extraordinarily concentrated energy sources—a single gallon of gasoline, remember, contains as much energy as one ton of fully charged lead-acid auto batteries—and nearly all of today’s technologies depend on that huge difference in energy concentration between the chemical energy of petroleum and other fossil fuels, on the one hand, and the ambient heat of the lower atmosphere on the other. 

The second limit comes out of White’s Law, which is arguably as important in human ecology as the laws of thermodynamics are in physics.  White’s Law states that the level of economic development possible in any society is determined by the amount of energy per capita at its disposal.  The immense infrastructure that makes today’s industrial world lifestyles possible depends on constant flows of concentrated energy, not merely to power it but to provide it with raw materials, spare parts, skilled and unskilled labor, and all its other necessities, and these requirements each have further requirements of their own, cascading outwards in a net of dependencies that ultimately includes much of the planet. Nearly all of today’s technologies depend on our current industrial infrastructure or a close facsimile thereof, not only to keep them fueled and running, but to give what they do some value. 

These two limits interact in ways that are fatal to most projects for future technologies.  Any future society in the real world is going to have to get by on a lot less energy, and a lot less of the products of energy, than people in today’s industrial societies are used to having at their beck.  This means that any advanced technology will have to compete with other technologies for a share of the limited energy that’s available, and it will also have to compete with other, less technologically complex ways of accomplishing whatever it is that it does.  Furthermore, the relevance of any advanced technology to a future society will depend on how complex an infrastructure that society would need to build the technology, fuel it, maintain it, and give its work economic value.  Whether or not computers will be viable in a future society, in other words, is not a question of whether it’s technically possible to build them; it depends, first, on whether all the things needed to build, power, maintain, and get useful work out of them can be provided; second, whether other, simpler technologies can provide the same services at a lower cost in energy, resources, and labor; and third, whether the sharply limited resources available to a future society would be better spent on some other project altogether.

All these issues will be familiar to regular readers of this blog.  It’s also probably worth saying that while I try to stay abreast of major developments in half a dozen sciences, there’s no way any human being can keep up with everything that’s being done by the world’s scientists and engineers, and so any guesses I may offer here may already have been rendered unnecessary or proven impossible by somebody sitting at a lab bench in Cleveland, Cape Town, or Kowloon.  I’m still going to take the risk of making some suggestions, but in a bit I’ll also have a challenge to offer to the scientists, engineers, and basement inventors among my readers.

First, though, my wish list.  In honor of the holiday season just past, we can call it a solstice list—those of my readers who celebrate Christmas instead can call it a Christmas list if they wish.  Still, I’d like to ask that the list not be sent to Santa Claus.  No, this list is for Krampus.

Krampus?  He’s a Yuletide figure across much of central Europe.  Horned, clawed, covered with shaggy black hair, and equipped with a long red tongue, he carries a birch switch, has a basket on his back, and visits houses on long winter nights. Good little children wake to find gold coins in their shoes; bad little children get thwacked with the birch switch; and really, really bad little children—the sort of spoiled, shrieking little horrors who take consumer society’s cult of self-centered greed to its logical extreme—get popped into the basket on Krampus’s back and taken away by him, and nobody ever sees them again.  I suspect that lingering belief in Krampus may be one reason why children in central Europe are by and large better behaved than their American equivalents.

Krampus, in other words, is all about consequences.  That in itself arguably makes him a better Yuletide figure than Santa Claus, whose ancient custom of putting a lump of coal in the stockings of offensive children is hardly even a memory these days.  Still, that’s only part of the reason I propose to send my wish list to Krampus.

The fact of the matter is that I’ve been bedeviled by Krampus over the holiday season just past.  Part of that’s due to the publication of a new fantasy novel, Krampus the Yule Lord, in which the horned Yuletide spirit escapes from half a millennium of imprisonment to do battle with Santa Claus for dominion over the holiday season: something, that is, like a cross between A Christmas Carol and Prometheus Unbound. It’s got a portrait of Krampus on the front cover, and for months, when I visited libraries or walked past bookstores or waited in train stations next to one of those wretched little newsstands with a few books tucked in among the junk food and the magazines, there he’d be, leering out from the shelves. Meanwhile Krampus-themed holiday cards arrived from friends, as did emails from other friends asking me if I’d ever heard about...well, you get the picture.

Mind you, in my line of work, you learn early on how to recognize when an archetype is trying to get your attention.  Why exactly this particular archetype is clearing its throat and casting significant looks in the direction of a mild and middle-aged archdruid is something that I’ll doubtless figure out in due time. Meanwhile, though, it seems sensible enough to offer Krampus my wish list for next Yuletide, or whichever Yuletide is convenient; perhaps he can cash in some of those gold coins for a few research grants to get the process rolling.

So here are the things I’d like to see under the solstice tree one of these days, if a few scientists and engineers are willing to be Krampus’s little helpers and put them there.

At the top of the list—well, let’s start by talking a bit about the most important legacy our civilization is going to leave to the future.  No, it’s not any of the things for which we like to preen ourselves; it’s the vast quantities of nuclear waste we’re heaping up for tomorrow to deal with.  I don’t know words sufficiently forceful in any language to describe the sheer brutal selfishness of the attitude that insists that our supposed need to prop up our extravagant lifestyles a little longer justifies generating wastes that remain lethal for a quarter of a million years, while doing absolutely nothing to keep them away from the biosphere for more than the smallest fraction of that interval.

Still, that’s business as usual in most of the world’s industrial nations these days.  Sooner or later—probably after we get the statistically inevitable nuclear waste accident that turns a couple of hundred square miles or so of some industrial country into a dead zone nobody will be able to enter for the next millennium—finding some less self-destructively stupid way of dealing with the backlog of nuclear waste is going to be a major issue. When that time arrives, I’d like a technology that can do the trick:  if at all possible, some way of making spent fuel rods and other high-level waste physically stable, chemically inert, and biologically inaccessible. Oh, and it needs to be tested thoroughly; this is not a situation in which it’s helpful to rely on the alleged properties of vaporware.

So that’s one thing I’d like to see appear under the solstice tree.  Another, along similar lines, is a more thoroughly developed system of bioremediation for getting persistent poisons out of soil and water.  High-level nuclear waste isn’t the only kind of poison industrial civilization likes to produce, and most of the others aren’t even sequestered temporarily in storage pools.  All over the world, a great deal of soil and water has been contaminated with toxic metals and other pollutants, and these are things that our descendants are going to have to deal with for a very long time to come.

Bioremediation is one of the few effective low-tech methods for dealing with that.  It so happens that some plants, and some other organisms, selectively take up toxic substances from the soil and concentrate them in their tissues.  Experiments have been done showing that it’s possible, using repeated plantings of the right plants, to extract enough toxins from contaminated soils to make them safe again. A great deal of further work needs to be done in order to evolve a sufficiently extensive toolkit of bioremediation methods that can be applied, without high-tech infrastructure, to clean up the mess our civilization is going to leave behind it.  It should have plants and other organisms suited to the widest possible range of ecosystems and climatic conditions, and it should also include relatively simple tests—the sort of things that can be done in a makeshift lab using readily available reagents—for sorting out what toxic substances are in a given body of soil or water, and need to be extracted.

Right next to that kit, I’d like to see something a little more literary—a good clear manual of ecology for laypeople, written in relatively simple language, focusing on the principles that our descendants are going to need to know as they contend with the heap of problems we’re leaving them. William Catton has usefully described ecology as “the study of the processes that matter;” our civilization has tried to pretend that those processes don’t matter, and the consequences of that pretense are among the most important factors tipping said civilization into the rubbish heap of history just now.  It would be particularly nice if the manual were to walk its readers through the scientific method, teaching them how to formulate hypotheses and test them, so that the most valuable part of the grand intellectual adventure of science doesn’t get lost irretrievably during the dark age ahead of us.

Finally, I’d like to see a way to turn sunlight into electricity that doesn’t depend on silicon chip fabrication and doping, or any of the other high-end infrastructure of the modern industrial system.  I’ve pointed out in previous posts that the way we use electricity nowadays, with sprawling regional grids to convey power from centrally located power plants to wall sockets that are constantly supplied with current, is as wasteful as it is unsustainable.  That doesn’t mean that the future must do without electricity; it means that electricity in the future is far more likely to be generated and distributed on a village-scale or homescale basis, and used when it’s available, however intermittently that may be.  Generating electricity from wind and water will be easy for our descendants even in the absence of an industrial system—generators suited to that use can be built easily enough in a garage workshop, and so can waterwheels and wind turbines quite adequate for the purpose.

Solar electrical generation is considerably more challenging.  Photovoltaic (PV) cells, the mainstay of most solar electric systems today, require much the same manufacturing infrastructure as any other silicon-based semiconductor, and the likelihood that chip fabrication plants and everything needed to keep them running will be available in a deindustrial world is probably too small to worry about. The question remaining is whether there’s a less infrastructure-intensive way either to make PV cells, or to turn light into electricity in some other way.  My hunch—and it’s only a hunch, I admit—is that thermoelectric generators using the Seebeck effect, and simple parabolic or conical mirrors to collect light, are a good bet; the technology’s simple enough that an ordinarily enterprising medieval alchemist could have knocked one together while waiting for the athanor to get up to heat. Still, it will take a good engineer or two to tinker with the technology, try different options, and work up a prototype that can show whether my hunch is right; meanwhile, there are no doubt plenty of other options to explore.

So that’s my first tentative list.  If I ever were to be plopped down in front of an audience of scientists and engineers, though, I’d get through the list as quickly as possible, and concentrate thereafter on the far more interesting project of seeing if the scientists and engineers can come up with other proposals to add to it.  The challenge there, of course, would lie in getting them to grips with the hard limits of a deindustrializing world, where population, gross domestic product, and resource availability are all declining steadily.  In such a world, as already noted, the only technologies that can count on being preserved are those that can be kept running in an environment of scarcity, provide goods or services valuable enough to justify continued investment, and do so more economically than any other way of getting the same goods and services. These are not constraints that today’s scientists and engineers are used to facing, and getting them to take them seriously may take a certain amount of patience.

Still, it’s arguably worth doing, and for that reason I’m going to propose the challenge I mentioned earlier in this post. The peak oil science fiction contest this blog hosted back in 2011 left me very impressed with the creativity of this blog’s readership—those of you who weren’t following this blog yet back then can see for yourself in the pages of the anthology that resulted from that contest, After Oil—and I think it’s time to draw on that same resource again. So...drumroll please...we’re going to have another contest.

Here’s what I’m proposing. I’d like to ask this blog’s readers to break out their word processing programs again, but this time I’m looking for nonfiction papers with a scientific or technical slant, written for an intelligent nonprofessional audience.  Each paper should either describe a  problem that will confront the deindustrializing world in the course of the Long Descent, or propose a practical solution to some problem of this kind, or both.  Successful entries will start from the assumption that the unraveling of industrial society sketched out in this blog and my books The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future is a reality that has to be accepted, and go from there to deal with specific challenges that will follow from the shape of that future.

Please don’t simply rehash some issue that’s already been discussed a godzillion times already.  On the other hand, you can certainly propose a novel solution to a familiar problem, just as you can come up with an unfamiliar problem that has some readily available solution; you can take a solution that’s currently in the conceptual stage, build a prototype, and report on it, and you can also present a problem that nobody’s thought of yet and say "we need to come up with some effective response to this." If your solution relies on vaporware—that is to say, theoretical technologies that haven’t been built or tested yet—say so, and don’t pretend that you can be sure in advance that it will work as well as you hope; you might also suggest some ways in which your vaporware can be tested for efficacy once a prototype gets built. If you build a working prototype of your proposed technology and describe how it worked, on the other hand, you get a good dollop of extra credit.

I should stress here that I’m not looking for vague generalities, wishful thinking, or another round of apocalyptic fantasies.  The Long Descent is going to be a very challenging process all ‘round, but a great many of those challenges will be concrete problems that can be solved, or at least ameliorated, by applying the methods of science and engineering, or of plain pragmatic common sense.  Creative thought is important here, but so is a solid grasp of the realities we face, backed up by a clear sense of what’s already known and has already been done; thus the essays that will come out in front in this contest will be those that combine original thinking with plenty of relevant footnotes.

Essays should be between 1500 and 6000 words in length, not counting footnotes and references; they should be posted somewhere online—if you don’t have a blog, Blogger will happily set you up with one—and a link posted on the comments page here. As before, the best dozen or so essays, as selected by me, will be going into an anthology, which I’ll edit and introduce; whatever royalties there may be will be split among the authors.  Entries to the contest should be posted online by November 1, 2013.  After all, Krampus will doubtless need a little time to get the results ready to tuck underneath the solstice tree.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Into an Unknown Country

Was it just my imagination, or was the New Year’s celebration just past even more halfhearted than those of the last few years? My wife and I welcomed 2013 with a toast, and breakfasted the next morning on the traditional good-luck foods—rice and beans, corn bread, greens and bacon—that I learned to enjoy back when I was studying old-fashioned Southern folk magic. Outside our little house, though, the midnight air seemed remarkably quiet; the whoops, horns, and firecrackers of New Years past were notable mostly by their absence, and the next day’s hush seemed less a matter of hangovers than a not unreasonable dread of what 2013 might have in store for us all.

No doubt some of that was a function of the media panic about the so-called Fiscal Cliff. The New Yorker scored a palpable hit by headlining a piece on the subject "Washington Celebrates Solving Totally Unnecessary Crisis They Created," but there’s more to it than that. What, after all, was this "fiscal cliff"? A measure that would have repealed some of the tax breaks and hikes in Federal spending put in place since 2000, and thus reduced the annual Federal deficit by a modest amount.  All that yelling, in other words, was provoked by the possibility that the US government might have to take a few steps in the direction of living within its means.  If the frantic struggle to avert that outcome is any measure of the kind of statesmanship we can expect from the White House and Congress in the year to come, it’s no wonder that hiding under the mattress has so much evident appeal just now.

There’s more involved in the evident lack of enthusiasm for the new year, though, than the latest clown acts playing in the three-ring circus that is today’s Washington DC.  A great many of the comforting rationalizations that have played so large a role in justifying a continued reliance on the unsustainable are wearing very thin.  Consider the claims, retailed by the media at ever-increasing volume these days, that recent upturns in the rate of domestic petroleum production in the US offer a conclusive disproof to the idea of peak oil, and herald the arrival of a new age of cheap abundant fuel.  Courtesy of Jim Kunstler’s latest blog post, I’d like to offer a chart of US petroleum production, from 1920 to now, that puts those claims in perspective.  
See the tiny little uptick in production over there on the far right?  That’s the allegedly immense rise in petroleum production that drives all the rhetoric.  If that blip doesn’t look like a worldchanging event to you, dear reader, you’re getting the message. It isn’t a worldchanging event; it’s the predictable and, by the way, repeatedly predicted result of the rise in oil prices from around $30 a barrel to between three and four times that, following the 2008 spike and crash.  Triple or quadruple the price of any other commodity, and sources of that commodity that weren’t economically feasible to produce at the lower price will suddenly become paying propositions, too.  (Yes, that’s spelled "Bakken shale" in the present tense.) If the price of oil were to triple or quadruple again over the next few years, we’ll probably see another increase on the same very modest scale, too.  That increase still won’t be a worldchanging event, though the economic impact of another round of price increases on that scale might be.

More generally, we’ve got a real shortage of worldchanging events just now.  There are good reasons for that, just as there are equally—well, equally strong, if not equally good—reasons why so many people are pinning all their hopes on a worldchanging event of one kind or another.  Therapists like to point out that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten, and of late it’s become a truism (though it’s also a truth) that doing the same thing and expecting to get different results is a good working definition of insanity.  The attempt to find some way around that harsh but inescapable logic is the force that drove the prophetic hysteria about 2012, and drives end-of-the-world delusions more generally:  if the prospect of changing the way you live terrifies you, but the thought of facing the consequences of the way you live terrifies you just as much, daydreaming that some outside force will come along and change everything for you can be a convenient way to avoid having to think about the future you’re making for yourself.

With that in mind, and with an eye toward the year ahead of us, I’d like to attend to three New Year customs that haven’t gotten as much attention here on The Archdruid Report as they probably should.  First, I’d like to go over my predictions for the year just finished, and see how well they did; second, I’d like to offer up some predictions for the year to come; and third, I’d like to make some suggestions for what my readers might consider doing about it all.

My 2012 predictions appeared in the first January post here last year.  Here they are:

"I’d like to suggest that when we take a backwards look in the early days of 2013, we will most likely see that that’s what happened in 2012, too: a slow worsening across a wide range of trends, punctuated by localized crises and regional disasters. I’d like to predict, in fact, that when we take that backward look, the US dollar and the Euro will both still exist and be accepted as legal tender, though the Eurozone may have shed a couple of countries who probably shouldn’t have joined it in the first place; that stock markets around the world will have had another volatile year, but will still be trading.  Here in the US, whoever is unlucky enough to win the 2012 presidential election will be in the middle of an ordinary transition to a new term of office; the new Congress will be gearing up for another two years of partisan gridlock; gas stations will still have gas for sale and grocery stores will be stocked with groceries; and most Americans will be making the annual transition between coping with their New Year’s hangovers and failing to live up to their New Year’s resolutions, just as though it was any other year.

"Official US statistics will no doubt insist that the unemployment rate has gone down...but the number of people out of work in the United States will likely set another all-time record; the number of people in severe economic trouble will have gone up another good-sized notch, and public health clinics will probably be seeing the first wave of malnutrition-caused illness in children.  If you happen to have spent the year in one of the areas unfortunate enough to get hit by the hard edge of the increasingly unstable weather, you may have had to spend a week or two in an emergency shelter while the flood waters receded or the wreckage got hauled away, and you might even notice that less and less gets rebuilt every year.

"Unless that happens, though, or unless you happen to pay close attention to the things that don’t usually make the evening news, you may well look back in the first days of 2013 and think that business as usual is still ongoing. You’d be right, too, so long as you recognize that there’s been a stealthy change in what business as usual now means.  Until the peak of world conventional petroleum production arrived in 2005, by and large, business as usual meant the continuation of economic growth. Since then, by and large, it has meant the continuation of economic decline."

No countries left the Eurozone in 2012, and if malnutrition-caused illness in children has had a notable uptick in America, I haven’t yet heard of it.  Other than that, I think it’s fair to say that I called it.  I’d like to put on my sorcerer’s cap, furthermore, and gaze a little deeper into the mists of futurity; I thus predict that just as 2012 looked like a remake of 2011 a little further down the curve of decline, 2013 will look a good deal like 2012, but with further worsening along the same broad array of trends and yet another round of local crises and regional disasters. The number of billion-dollar weather disasters will tick up further, as will the number of Americans who have no job—though, to be sure, the official unemployment rate and other economic statistics will be gimmicked then as now.  The US dollar, the Euro, and the world’s stock markets will still be in business at year’s end, and there will still be gas for sale in gas stations, groceries for sale in grocery stores, and more people interested in the Super Bowl than in global warming or peak oil, as 2013 gives way to 2014.

As the year unfolds, I’d encourage my readers to watch the fracking bubble. Yes, it’s a speculative bubble of the classic sort, one that has soaked up a vast amount of investment money over the last few years, and the glorious future of American energy independence being touted by the media has the same function, and the same relationship to reality, as the glorious future of endlessly rising house prices that got waved around with equal abandon in 2006 and 2007. I don’t expect the bubble to pop this year—my best guess at this point is that that’ll happen in 2014—but it’s already losing air as the ferocious decline rates experienced by fracked oil and gas wells gnaw the bottom out of the fantasy.  Expect the new year to bring more strident claims of the imminent arrival of a shiny new future of energy abundance, coupled with a steady drumbeat of bad financial news suggesting, in essence, that the major players in that end of the oil and gas industry are well and truly fracked.

I’d also encourage my readers to watch the climate.  The tendency to focus on predicted apocalypses to come while ignoring the reality of ongoing collapse in the present is as evident here as in every other corner of contemporary culture; whether or not the planet gets fried to a crackly crunch by some more or less distant future date, it’s irrefutable that the cost of weather-related disasters across the world has been climbing year over year for decades, and this is placing an increasingly harsh burden on local and regional economies here in the US and elsewhere.  It’s indicative that many coastal towns in Louisiana and Mississippi that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina have never been rebuilt, and it’s probably a safe bet that a similar fate waits for a fair number of the towns and poorer neighborhoods hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy.  As global warming pumps more heat into the heat engine we call Earth’s climate, the inevitable result is more extreme weather—drier droughts, fiercer storms, more serious floods, and so on down a litany that’s become uncomfortably familiar in recent years. 

Most of the infrastructure of industrial society was built during the period of abnormally good weather we call the twentieth century.  A fair amount of it, as New York subway riders have had reason to learn, is poorly designed to handle extreme weather, and if those extremes become normal, the economics of maintaining such complex systems as the New York subways in the teeth of repeated flooding start to look very dubious indeed.  I don’t expect to see significant movements out of vulnerable coastal areas quite yet, but if 2011’s Hurricane Irene and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy turn out to have a bouncing baby sibling who decides to pay a visit to the Big Apple in 2013, 2014 might see the first businesses relocating further inland, perhaps to the old mill towns of the southern Hudson valley and the eastern end of Pennsylvania, perhaps further still.

That’s speculative. What isn’t speculative is that all the trends that have been driving the industrial world down the arc of the Long Descent are still in play, and so are all the parallel trends that are pushing America’s global empire along its own trajectory toward history’s dustbin  Those things haven’t changed; even if anything could be done about them, which is far from certain, nothing is being done about them; indeed, outside of a handful of us on the fringes of contemporary culture, nobody is even talking about the possibility that something might need to be done about them.  That being the case, it’s a safe bet that the trends I’ve sketched out will continue unhindered, and give us another year of the ordinary phenomena of slowly accelerating decline and fall.

That, in turn, leads to the question of what my readers might do about it all.

My advice hasn’t changed.  It’s a source of some amusement to me, though, that no matter how clearly I try to communicate that advice, a fair number of people will hear what they want to hear, or perhaps what they expect to hear, rather than what I’m saying.  Over the course of this last week, for example, several people commenting on this post on one of the many other forums where it appears insisted with some heat that I claimed that activism was worthless, while one of the commenters here on The Archdruid Report took me to task for what he thought was a rejection of community in favor of an unworkable go-it-alone approach.

Not so.  What I’m saying is that any meaningful response to the crisis of our time has to begin on the individual level, with changes in our own lives.  To say that it should begin there doesn’t mean that it should end there; what it does mean is that without the foundation of personal change, neither activism nor community building nor anything else is going to do much.  We’ve already seen what happens when climate activists go around insisting that other people ought to decrease their carbon footprint, while refusing to do so themselves, and the results have not exactly been good.  Equally, if none of the members of a community are willing to make the changes necessary to decrease their own dependence on a failing industrial system, just what good is the community as a whole supposed to do?

A great many people like to insist that changing your own life isn’t enough, and then act as though that means that changing your own life isn’t necessary.  Again, not so.  If industrial society as a whole has to stop dumping excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, dear reader, that means among many other things that you, personally, have to stop contributing your share of that excess.  Equally, if industrial society as a whole is running short of fossil fuels, that means among many other things that you, personally, are going to have to get used to living without them.  That being the case, why not start with the part of the problem about which you can actually do something—your own consumption of fossil fuels and your own production of carbon dioxide—and then go from there?

Political activism, community building, and a great many other proposed responses to the crisis of our time are entirely valid and workable approaches if those who pursue them start by making the changes in their own lives they expect other people to make in turn.  Lacking that foundation, they go nowhere. It’s not even worth arguing any more about what happens when people try to get other people to do the things they won’t do themselves; we’ve had decades of that, it hasn’t helped, and it’s high time that the obvious lessons get drawn from that fact.  Once again, if you always do what you’ve always done...

That being said, here are some suggested New Year’s resolutions for those of my readers who are interested in being part of the solution:

1. Caulk, weatherstrip, and insulate the place where you live.  Most Americans can cut between 5% and 25% of their total annual energy use by weatherizing their homes. None of the work is rocket science; your local hardware store can sell you everything you need for a very modest amount of money, and there are plenty of sources in print and online that can teach you everything you need to know.  The sooner you get to work, the sooner you start saving money, and the sooner a good chunk of your share of excess carbon dioxide stops messing with the atmosphere.

2. Make at least one commute or run at least one errand a week on foot, by bicycle, or by public transit.  A great many Americans don’t actually need cars at all.  A good many of those who do, due to a half century of idiotic land use planning, need them a great deal less often than they think.  The best way to learn this is to experience what it’s like to travel by some other means.  It’s long past time to ditch the "yuppie logic" that suggests that it’s a good idea to drive a mile to the health club to get on a treadmill and get the exercise you didn’t get by walking to the health club.  It’s also long past time to ditch the equally false logic that insists that getting there faster is the only thing that matters.

3. If you take a vacation, take the train.  Traveling by train uses a small fraction of the fuel per mile that a plane needs, and the trip is part of the vacation rather than an ordeal to endure between one place and the next. Give it a try.  If you live in the US, you might also consider supporting the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which lobbies for expanded passenger rail service and offers a discount on fares for members.

4. Buy it used. This applies to everything from cars, should you actually need one, to the cheapest of trinkets.  By buying a used product rather than a new one, you save the energy cost of manufacturing the new product, and you also keep things out of the waste stream.  Used computers are particularly worth your while; if you live in a tolerably large urban area in the US, you can often get more computers than you need by letting your circle of friends know that you’ll take used but working devices off their hands for free.  You won’t be able to play the latest computer games on them, sure, but if you’re obsessed with playing the latest computer games, you don’t need a computer; you need a life. Speaking of getting a life...

5. Turn off the boob tube.  Better still, if you can talk the people you live with into it, get rid of the thing altogether.  Commercial television exists to fill your brain with emotionally manipulative imagery that lures you into buying products you wouldn’t otherwise need or want.  Public television?  Replace "products" with "opinions" and you’re not too far off. (Huge rapacious corporations spend millions of dollars to fund public TV programs; I hope none of my readers are naive enough to think that these corporations do this out of some vague sense of moral obligation.)  You don’t need any of that stuff cluttering up your brain.  While you’re at it...

6.  Take up an art, craft, or hobby.  Once you turn off the TV, you’re going to have the one luxury that nobody in a modern consumer society is ever supposed to have:  actual, unstructured free time.  It’s worth luxuriating in that for a bit, but pretty soon you’ll find that you want to do something with that time, and one of the best options is to learn how to do something interesting with your hands.  Three quarters of a century ago, most people had at least one activity that gave them something creative to do in their off hours, and a good many of those activities also produced useful and valuable things.  Unless you’re at least seventy years old or come from a very unusual family, you have no idea how many arts, crafts and hobbies Americans used to pursue, or how little money it takes to get started with most of them.  By the way, if you think you’re too old to take up playing the guitar or doing some other seemingly complicated skill, you’re not.

7. Do without something this year.  This is the scary one for most people in today’s consumer society.  To be able to have something, and choose not to have it, challenges some of the deepest of modern taboos.  Give it a try.  The point isn’t to strike an assumed pose of ecological virtue, by the way, so don’t tell anybody what you’re doing without, or even that you’re doing without something.  Nor is this about "being good" in some socially approved manner, so don’t choose something that you’re supposed to want to do without. Just quietly neglect to make something part of your life, and pay attention to your own emotional reactions.  If you’re like most people in today’s America, you’ll be in for a wild ride, but the destination is worth reaching.

So there you are.  As we head deeper into the unknown country of 2013, have a happy and sustainable new year!

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A couple of notes might be worth placing here for fans of my writing.  First of all, my latest peak oil book, Not The Future We Ordered:  The Psychology of Peak Oil and the Myth of Eternal Progress, is available for preorder.  Karnac Press, the publisher, is a specialty press publishing mostly in the field of psychology; the book is primarily intended for psychologists, therapists, and members of the healing professions, who will need to know what they’re dealing with as the psychological impacts of peak oil take their toll, but it may also be of interest to peak oil readers generally. Much of what’s covered in Not The Future We Ordered hasn’t appeared here or in any of my other books, so it may be worth a look.

I’m also pleased to announce that I’ve been offered a position as contributing editor and monthly columnist with PeakProsperity.com (formerly ChrisMartenson.com). My first column there will be appearing later this month. My working plan at this point is to head deeper into the territory I explored in my book The Wealth of Nature, with an eye toward the practical and personal implications of the end of the age of abundance.  This is a paid gig, and so the meat of my monthly columns will be in the subscribers-only area, but I plan on doing my level best to make sure it’s worth the price of admission. Again, might be worth a look.