Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Terms of Surrender

Today’s debates over hydrofracturing (“fracking”) oil-bearing shales, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, have dimensions that go well beyond the world of ritual theater discussed there. To begin with, of course, a great deal of money is being made off the current fracking boom by assorted Wall Street office fauna, and their efforts to keep the gravy train rolling for their benefit doubtless have quite a bit to do with the remarkable disregard for mere geological reality to be found in so much pro-fracking propaganda these days.

That sort of strained relationship with fact is a sufficiently standard feature of speculative bubbles that it ought to be high up there on the checklist of any connoisseur of financial lunacy. Those of my readers who recall the details of the late housing bubble will doubtless think of the enthusiasm shown then for what were called NINJA loans—that is, loans given to borrowers who had no income and no jobs or assets, but who would one and all, so bankers insisted with straight faces, pay back those loans religiously out of the money they were sure to make flipping properties. The same logic doubtless governs the equally earnest insistence that the ferocious depletion rates that afflict fracked wells simply don’t matter, that kerogen shales like the Green River formation that have resisted every previous attempt to get oil out of them have suddenly transformed themselves into nice extractable oil shales for our benefit, and that the results of wells drilled in the best possible “sweet spots” in each formation must inevitably be repeated by every available wellsite in the region.

Here, as with the countless other examples that might be put on display by some Dickensian Spirit of Speculative Bubbles Past, the understandable desire to make a fast buck off other people’s cluelessness might seem to offer an adequate explanation for the bumper crop of fatuous twaddle that’s being pushed by the pundits and splashed around so freely by the media these days. Still, I’ve come to think that there’s more going on here than the passion for emptying the pockets of chumps that sets the cold sick heart of Wall Street throbbing, and indeed that there’s even more at work than our culture’s touching habit, discussed over the last two weeks, of reenacting the traditional morality plays of the civil religion of progress in order to console the faithful in difficult times.

Plunge into the heart of the fracking storm, rather, and you’ll find yourself face to face with a foredoomed attempt to maintain one of the core beliefs of the civil religion of progress in the teeth of all the evidence. The stakes here go far beyond making a bunch of financiers their umpteenth million, or providing believers in the myth of progress with a familiar ritual drama to bolster their faith; they cut straight to the heart of that faith, and thus to some of the most fundamental presuppositions that are  guiding today’s industrial societies along their road to history’s scrapheap.

Since the days of Sir Francis Bacon, whose writings served as the first draft of the modern mythology of progress, one of the central themes of that mythology has been the conquest of Nature by humanity—or rather, in the more revealing language of an earlier day, by Man. You aren’t Man, in case you were wondering, and neither am I; neither is Sir Francis Bacon, for that matter, nor is anyone else who’s ever lived or will ever live.  This person called Man, rather, is a mythical hero who gives the civil religion of progress its central figure.  Just as devout Christians participate vicariously in the life of Christ through the celebration of the sacraments and the seasons of the liturgical year, believers in progress are supposed to participate vicariously in Man’s heroic journey from the caves to the stars by purchasing hot new products, and oohing and aahing appreciatively whenever the latest shiny technological trinket is unveiled by Man’s lab-coated priesthood.

Man’s destiny is to conquer Nature. That’s his one and only job, according to the myth, and when Man’s not doing that, he’s not doing anything worthwhile at all. Read any of the standard histories of Man written by true believers in the civil religion of progress, and you’ll see that societies and eras that devoted their energies to art, music, religion, literature, or anything else you care to name other than extending Man’s dominion over Nature are dismissed as irrelevant to Man’s history, when they’re not critiqued outright for falling down on the job.

You may be thinking by this point, dear reader, that a belief system that likes to portray humanity as a tyrant and conqueror rightfully entitled to view the entire cosmos as its own private lebensraum may not be particularly sensible, or for that matter particularly sane. You may well be right, too, but I’d like to focus on a somewhat more restricted point:  according to this way of looking at things, Nature is not supposed to put up more than a pro forma struggle or a passive resistance.  Above all, once any part of Nature is conquered, it’s supposed to stay conquered—and of course that’s where the trouble creeps in, because a great many of the things we habitually lump together as Nature are refusing to go along with the script.

Examples come to mind by the dozens, but one of the most significant and frightening just now is the collapse of the most important health revolution of modern times, the conquest (that word again) of bacterial disease by antibiotics. I’m not sure how many of my readers realize what an immense change in human life followed Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery that a substance excreted by bread mold killed most bacteria without harming human cells. A century ago, dysentery and bacterial pneumonia were leading causes of death in most industrial countries, killing far more people than heart disease or cancer, and the odds of living from birth to age five had an uncomfortable resemblance to a throw of the dice even in wealthy countries. Penicillin and the antibiotics that followed it changed that decisively, enabling doctors to stop bacterial diseases in their tracks. It’s because of antibiotics that I’m here to write this blog; the scarlet fever that had me flat on my back for weeks when I was seven years old would almost certainly have killed me if antibiotics hadn’t been available.

Outside the public health and infectious disease fields, most people remain serenely convinced that the relative freedom from bacterial disease that’s characterized the recent past in the industrial world is destined to remain fixed in place for the rest of time. Within those fields, by contrast, that comfortable conviction finds few takers. Penicillin, the antibiotic that saved my life in 1969, won’t even slow down most microbes now. Diseases that used to yield readily to an injection or two now have to be treated with complex cocktails of increasingly toxic antibiotics, and every year more pathogens turn up that are resistant to some, most, or all available antibiotics.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, at least for those who want to play the blame game. It’s been common since the 1950s for physicians to prescribe antibiotics for conditions antibiotic therapy can’t treat—for example, the common cold. It’s been equally common since the 1950s for livestock farms to give their animals daily doses of antibiotics, since (for complex biochemical reasons) this causes the animals to gain weight more quickly, and thus be worth more money at slaughtering time. Both these bad habits helped give bacteria the widest possible range of opportunities to develop resistance. Still, these and other contributing factors simply help feed the main issue, which is that bacterial evolution didn’t come to a sudden stop when Fleming started paying attention to bread mold.

I’ve commented several times in this blog that understanding evolution is crucial for making sense of the predicament of the industrial world, and the approaching end of the antibiotic era offers a solid example of the reasons why.  Evolution through natural selection is the process by which living things adapt themselves to environmental changes; it works through individual organisms, but its effects are not limited to the individual scale. In the case of the spread of antibiotic resistance among microbes, there are at least three patterns at work. First, microbes are being selected for their resistance to individual antibiotics. Second, as new antibiotics are brought out to replace old ones, microbes are being selected for their ability to develop resistance to one antibiotic after another as quickly as possible. Finally, the pressure exerted on the entire microbial biosphere by the pervasive presence of antibiotics in the modern environment is giving a huge selective advantage to species that have the ability to exchange genes for resistance with other species.

The results are being documented in increasingly worried articles in public health journals. A large and growing number of pathogenic microbes these days are already resistant to the antibiotics that used to treat them; new antibiotics brought onto the market start running into problems with resistant bacteria in a fraction of the time that was once necessary for resistance to emerge; and the transfer of antibiotic resistance from one species to another is becoming an increasingly troubling problem. The possibility of a return to pre-1928 conditions, when a simple bacterial infection could readily turn into a death sentence and most families buried at least one child before the age of five, is seeing serious discussion in the professional literature.

As already mentioned, though, such worries are falling on deaf ears outside the public health and infectious-disease fields. There’s a mordant irony in the reason why, though I suspect it’s not often relished outside of the peak oil scene and a few other places where the same logic appears. Faced with the prospect of the end of the antibiotic era and the return of bacterial illnesses as major threats to public health, most  politicians, like the people they’re supposed to serve, respond with an overfamiliar sentence:  “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something.”  The increasingly frantic efforts of researchers to find new antibiotics and stay ahead of the remorselessly rising tide of microbial resistance get no more attention than the equally frantic efforts, say, of drilling companies to find petroleum deposits to make up for the increasingly rapid depletion of existing oil fields.

In both cases, and in any number of others, the myth of progress is the most important barrier in the way of a meaningful response to our predicament.  According to the myth, we can’t go backwards to any condition encountered in the past; what Man conquers is supposed to stay conquered, so he can continue his ever-victorious journey from the caves to the stars. It’s unthinkable, in terms of the myth, that the supposed conquest of some part of nature—say, bacterial disease—might represent nothing more than a temporary advantage that the pressures of natural selection will soon erase. Thus when this latter turns out to be the case, those believers in the religion of progress who aren’t forced to confront such awkward realities in their work or their daily lives simply repeat the sacred words  “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something,” to invoke the blessing of the great god Progress on His only begotten son, Man, and then proceed to act as though nothing could possibly go wrong.

The difficulty, of course, is that an embarrassingly large portion of the territory supposedly conquered by Man over the last three centuries is showing an awkward propensity to ignore Man’s overlordship and do what it wants instead. The much-ballyhooed Green Revolution of the mid-20th century is another case in point. The barrage of fertilizers and poisons the proponents of that movement turned on agriculture won a temporary advantage over the hard subsistence limits of earlier eras, but it was only temporary. The reckless use of artificial fertilizers turned out to have drastic downsides, while the poisons drove insects and weeds into exactly the same frenzy of intensive natural selection that antibiotics brought to the microbial world. Insects and weeds don’t reproduce as quickly or swap genetic material with the same orgiastic abandon as microbes, but the equivalent changes are happening at a slightly slower pace; one of the dirty secrets of conventional agriculture is that herbicide resistance among weeds and pesticide resistance among insects and other agricultural pests are spreading rapidly, erasing the short-term gains of the Green Revolution while leaving the long-term costs in lost topsoil and poisoned water tables to be paid by generations to come.

Farmers faced by resistant weeds and pests, like physicians faced by resistant microbes, are turning to increasingly desperate measures to get the same results that their equivalents got with much less trouble. That’s exactly the situation that’s driving the current fracking boom and bubble, too. Back in the glory days of petroleum exploration and discovery, drillers could punch a well a few hundred feet into the ground and hit oil; now it takes hugely expensive deepwater drilling, tar sands extraction, or hydrofracturing of shale and other “tight oil” deposits to keep the liquid fuel flowing, and the costs keep rising year after year.

The implication that has to be faced is that the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution. Believers in the religion of progress like to think that Man conquered distance and made the world smaller by inventing internal combustion engines, aircraft, and an assortment of other ways to burn plenty of petroleum products. What actually happened, though, was that drilling rigs and a few other technologies gave our species a temporary boost of cheap liquid fuel to play with, and we proceeded to waste most of it on the assumption that Nature’s energy resources had been conquered and could be expected to fork over another cheap abundant energy source as soon as we wanted one.

That follows logically from the myth, but it doesn’t follow in reality. Instead, the temporary advantage our species gained by exploiting all that cheap, easily accessible petroleum is being brought to an end by factors even more implacable than the constant pressure of natural selection on niche boundaries: the simple facts that a finite planet by definition only contains a finite amount of any given resource, and that deposits of every resource are distributed according to the power law—the rule, consistently true across an impressive range of fields, that larger deposits are much less common than smaller ones. Those factors are not going away; the fact that Wall Street office fauna are shoveling smoke about, ahem, “limitless amounts of oil and natural gas” from fracked wells, may make them their umpteenth million and keep the clueless neatly sedated for a few more years, but it’s not going to do a thing to change the hard facts of the predicament that’s closing around us all.

Seen in this light, the mythology of Man’s conquest of Nature bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain other campaign of conquest launched to the sound of blaring brass bands and overconfident pronouncements in the not too distant past.  Like German civilians tuning in to news broadcasts from Berlin in the heady summer of 1941, people in the world’s industrial nations have taken in any number of proclamations about Man’s latest glorious victories in the war against Nature.  The conquest of disease, the conquest of hunger, the conquest of air and space and distance itself—is there any scientific or technological success, however temporary, that hasn’t been praised in those fatuous terms?—each had its fifteen minutes of fame as Man’s heroic legions of science and progress pursued their allegedly invincible Drang nach Sternen.

Some time ago, though, the content of the propaganda broadcasts began to change, though their tone did not. Nuclear fusion seems to have played much the same role in Man’s conquest of Nature that Moscow played in that other campaign, the goal that seemed almost in reach time and again, but never quite fell into the hands so greedily outstretched for it.  Other campaigns meant to push the frontiers of Man’s dominion further out into Nature’s unconquered territory have had equally mixed luck, and even the immense effort that put an American flag on the Moon turned out to have no more influence on the course of events than the rather less challenging campaign by an SS mountain battalion that put a  different flag on the summit of the highest mountain in the Caucasus range.

It’s what followed that relative stalemate, though, that’s of importance here. Beginning in 1943, the German civilians tuning in to those radio broadcasts from Berlin had to deal with an increasing burden of cognitive dissonance, as the heroic battles and triumphant victories breathlessly announced by Goebbels’ acolytes stopped moving eastwards on the map and started shifting back toward the west. The forces that had been sweeping everything before them in the suburbs of Moscow were now doing the same thing in the vicinity of Smolensk, with no explanation of the change.  Nor was there any clearer explanation to be had as Germany’s glorious victories shifted steadily westwards, past Minsk and Warsaw and Breslau, until nervous listeners in the Berlin suburbs, just before the broadcasts stopped for good, could hear the sound of artillery rattling their own windows.
The question that all would-be conquerors need to ask themselves, in other words, is what will happen if their planned campaign of conquest fails. None of the 17th-century thinkers who played a role in launching humanity on its assault on Nature seems to have posed that question, even in private, much less tried to think through the answers. I’d encourage my readers to have this in mind when the latest reports of glorious victories place these latter more and more often in territory that was supposedly conquered in earlier campaigns. I’d also encourage them, to push the metaphor a step further, to think about what terms of surrender might be demanded of us when Man’s grand attempt to conquer Nature ends in defeat—something we’ll discuss further next week.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Well and Truly Fracked

The reduction of contemporary debates about the future to ritual theater, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, isn’t limited to the specific technological issues I discussed in that essay—the increasingly dubious quest for fusion power, on the one hand, and the prospects for the internet’s survival in an age of economic contraction and resource scarcity, on the other.  Across the landscape of contemporary (mis)understandings of the future, just about every issue you care to name has been turned into yet another modern morality play in which progress gets to act out one more symbolic triumph over its eternal enemies. 

To describe that habit as unhelpful is to understate the case considerably.  Modern industrial civilization faces serious challenges in the years immediately before us, as the paired jaws of resource depletion and environmental disruption clamp down ever more tightly on it, and the consequences of decades of bad decisions come home to roost. In order to deal with those challenges, hard questions need to be asked and realistic answers considered—and this isn’t furthered at all by the tendency on the part of so many people these days to lapse into cheerleading instead. It’s rather as though you were trying to have a serious discussion about educational policy with someone whose only response to anything you said was to shout, “Central High, Central High, rah, rah, rah!”

Any number of examples of this could be quoted, but the one I’d like to discuss here  is the way that fracking—hydrofracturing of oil and gas-bearing shales, to give it its more precise moniker—has been transformed, at least in the popular imagination, into the conclusive answer to those annoying little worries about the impossibility of extracting an infinite amount of petroleum from a finite planet. That’s worth discussing just now for at least two reasons.

The first of these is that the public debate over fracking is almost certainly about to become a good deal more heated than it’s already gotten, due to the publication of a lively and eminently readable little book on the subject—Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future by Richard Heinberg, which you can order from the publisher here. Those of my readers who have been following the peak oil story since its reemergence early in the last decade will recall Heinberg’s The Party’s Over; that and James Howard Kunstler’s memorably edgy The Long Emergency were the books that launched peak oil into the collective conversation of our time.

Snake Oil may just accomplish the same thing with the side of the fracking debate that’s getting no attention from the mainstream media. Heinberg makes four points in the book, each of which could usefully be put on the business end of a branding iron and applied to the tender backsides of pundits and politicians alike.  First, the loudly ballyhooed claims that fracking promises a new age of limitless cheap energy for Americans are pure malarkey, based on a patchwork of unjustifiable assumptions and outright fabrications that wildly overstate potential production and tacitly ignore all the downsides of a far from flawless technology. Second, in the usual fashion of today’s American economy, fracking piles up short term profits for a few by loading immense long term costs on local communities, natural systems, and future generations.

Third, a significant proportion of the hoopla over fracking is being orchestrated by those wonderful folks on Wall Street who brought you last decade’s housing bubble and bust, and the same kind of financial shenanigans that nearly capsized the global economy in 2008 and 2009 are being applied with gusto to a burgeoning bubble in shale leases and the like. Fourth, and most critically, the increasingly frantic cheerleading being devoted to the fracking industry these days is simply one more delay in the process of coming to grips with the real crisis of our time—the need to decouple as much as possible of industrial society from its current dependence on fossil fuels. As Heinberg points out, there aren’t enough economically recoverable fossil fuels left in the planet’s crust to keep the world chugging ahead on a business-as-usual track of economic growth for much longer, but there’s more than enough to finish the job of destabilizing the Earth’s climate and pitching us face first into a very difficult future.

None of these points will be news to regular readers of The Archdruid Report, but then regular readers of The Archdruid Report are not this book’s primary audience. (You won’t find any of my peak oil writings in the bibliography, either, and for very good reason—a book meant to influence policymakers and the general public does itself no favors by citing archdruids.)  Those of my regular readers who need facts and figures to argue against fracking-industry shills, or who want a short and highly readable book to press into the hands of the uninformed or undecided, will certainly want a copy, and those who have just stumbled across this blog and are still trying to figure out what all the fuss about peak oil means could do much worse than to get a copy of Snake Oil and read it—the absurd media blather about “limitless fossil fuels” and similar oxymorons gets a well-earned hiding at Heinberg’s capable hands.

The publication of Snake Oil, then, is one of the reasons why a discussion of fracking is particularly relevant at the moment. The other?  That comes from an even more unanswerable critique of fracking—this one written by the impersonal forces of geology and economics. This will come as no surprise to this blog’s regular readers, either; as I suggested in a post earlier this year, with the approach of autumn, the fracking juggernaut is running on fumes.

Consider this story from the financial media—tip of the archdruidical hat to Ron Patterson’s blog Peak Oil Barrel, one of the rising stars of the post-Oil Drum peak oil scene, for the link. Big oil names Shell and BHP Billiton are writing down the value of their shale assets by billions of dollars. Meanwhile the value of oil and gas-related transactions, among the top profit centers for Wall Street every year since 2005, has dropped like a rock and, unless something changes drastically, won’t even make the top five list this year.

Nor is this happening solely on Wall Street; out in shale country, too, the boom is grinding to a halt. The pace of drilling in the Fayetteville shale has dropped precipitously this year; in Texas, meanwhile, gas production from the Barnett Shale has dropped more than a billion cubic feet a day, to levels last seen in 2009; while in the Marcellus Shale country of Pennsylvania, insurance companies are starting to cancel homeowners insurance and home mortgages are becoming unavailable as the health and environmental toll of reckless shale development piles up.

Headlines of this sort are becoming increasingly common in the financial press as one month gives way to another. With utter predictability, so have articles and essays in the mainstream media crowing about the supposed end of peak oil, and financial-advice columns urging the general public to get out there and invest their life’s savings in shale oil and gas. Those who recall the way the housing bubble played out over its last year or two will recall this same phenomenon: as the fundamentals turned sour, the chorus of pundits praising the arrival of a new age of prosperity for all got louder and louder, until the crash of collapsing prices finally drowned it out.

Exactly how long it will take for the shale bubble to tip over into full-scale bust probably can’t be known except in hindsight. The same principle probably applies just as well to another question that may be even more explosive: just how much of Wall Street and the broader US financial industry depends on income skimmed off the shale bubble for its economic survival. It’s when the tide goes out, as Warren Buffet famously said, that you find out who’s been swimming naked; when the bubble bursts and companies with heavy exposure to the fracking industry can no longer cover their day to day costs by tapping into the money flows any speculative boom attracts, the consequences could fall anywhere along the spectrum from sharp regional recessions in shale country all the way to panic selling on global markets and a reprise of 2008’s economic turmoil.

I suppose it counts as belaboring the obvious to point out that these aren’t the consequences that were supposed to flow from the so-called shale revolution, according to the pundits and politicians and industry shills that filled the media with proclamations of good times to come. Still, the point needs to be made, because it’s a safe bet that the same promises of abundant energy and prosperity for all will be made in regard to any number of equally dubious revolutions and breakthroughs and great leaps forward in the years ahead., with equally unsatisfactory results.

The rhetoric that surrounded the fracking bubble from its inception, after all, was exactly the sort of ritual theater of progress I discussed in last week’s post. Read any discussion of fracking in the US mainstream media and you’ll find every one of the standard cliches present and accounted for: the imaginary barriers that are there solely to be overcome, the innovative new technology hot off the lab bench, the lucky discoveries that show up just in time for the new technology to exploit, the ceremonial debate in which the opponents of progress raise doleful cries about the timeless order of rural life that’s about to be destroyed while the protagonists proclaim the dawn of a new day of prosperity and abundance for all, and so on.

None of this has any relevance to the facts on the ground.  Outside the realm of ritual theater, the limits are real, the technology isn’t new and neither are the discoveries, the destruction announced by the opponents of fracking has turned out to be quite tangible, and the new day of prosperity and abundance has gone missing in action.  Still, you won’t hear that from the media, not until long after the boom has gone bust, the hardware has been sold to the Chinese for scrap, and the sole remaining legacy of the shale bubble consists of county-sized areas where the groundwater is too toxic to drink.

This is what happens when a culture’s traditions get fatally out of step with its circumstances. Not that long ago in America, the ritual theater of progress was adaptive, to borrow a bit of jargon from ecology: more often than not, those who extracted more resources, burnt more energy, built more infrastructure, and produced more goods and services prospered, and so did their communities.  Every disagreement about economic development, as I showed last week, was therefore forced into what amounts to a ceremonial pattern that guaranteed that the proponents of progress would win every round. When the limits to growth were still far off, when it was still possible to pretend that resources were infinite and the environment’s capacity to absorb pollutants was just as limitless, that was a successful strategy.

The problem with that strategy was that it was unable to adapt when the hard limits to resource reserves and the biosphere’s tolerance for pollution came within sight. In terms of our culture’s faith in progress and the ritual theater that unfolded from that faith, those limits could only be interpreted as another set of imaginary barriers to be overcome, and another set of doleful cries for the opponents of progress to utter in the ceremonial debate they were supposed to lose.  That’s why every response to the crisis of our time that gets favorable attention from the US media is framed as an overcoming of imaginary limits by way of some innovative new technology, and quickly gets its chorus of opponents of progress uttering doleful cries, so that the heroes of progress have the appropriate ritual setting against which the can sing their praises of the shining new day about to dawn. Those are our traditions and our rituals, handed down to us by our tribal elders, and it’s simply our bad luck that those traditions and rituals have left us hopelessly unprepared to deal with the real world.

In the real world, the most important task facing each of us right now is that of grasping that the absurd abundance of energy and resources that Americans enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century was anything but normal.  A cascade of fortuitous events handed the American people of that period a huge surplus of energy and resources, orders of magnitude greater than any comparable example in history. Of course we squandered most of it, and picked up habits of extravagance and waste that will have to be unlearnt painfully as the last of the surplus fades away.

To accept that task, though, is to abandon habits of thought and action that have pervaded American culture throughout living memory. The habits of thrift and self-discipline that our forebears learned in the school of hard necessity—“use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”—drowned in the flood of mostly unearned wealth that saturated American society during this nation’s age of empire, and every detail of contemporary American culture militates against a return to those sane but unwelcome standards. At this point, as I’ve argued more than once in the past, any response to the challenge of our time that doesn’t start with using much less energy and other resources simply isn’t serious; still, our culture being what it is, unserious responses remain the order of the day.

Still, there’s at least one good reason to think that this latter may be a distinctly temporary condition.  The fracking bubble, after all, was not the first such response to the twilight of cheap abundant petroleum. In the wake of the 1970s energy crises, it bears remembering, the same sort of rhetoric currently being deployed on behalf of fracking was much in evidence, as the reckless pumping of the North Sea and Alaskan North Slope oilfields crashed the price of oil and convinced a great many people that the great god Progress was still soundly ensconced in his temple.  Then as now, an increasingly frantic effort to scrape the barrel was treated as proof that the barrel was still full, and allowed politicians, the press, and the public at large to put off necessary changes for a little while.

Notice the difference, though:  the scrape-the-barrel efforts launched by the Reagan counterrevolution of the 1980s kept oil production propped up for more than twenty years, while the equivalent efforts this time around barely managed the thing for five. The available reserves in 1980 were large enough to crash the price of oil and pay for one last spectacular era of prosperity; the reserves tapped by fracking weren’t enough to keep the price of oil from rising up into triple digits, or give the economy more than a brief and localized boost. We really are getting near the bottom of the barrel—less metaphorically, the point at which petroleum production worldwide tips over from its current unsteady plateau into the long ragged decline that marks the twilight of every resource. 

Those necessary changes still wait to be made. What remains to be seen is how many people in America and elsewhere will rise to the challenge and make them, and how many will cling to the failed beliefs of a bygone era until the night closes in.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Ritual Theater of Progress

This habit of drafting my ideas on the future of industrial society right out here in public has its disadvantages, to be sure, but there are benefits as well. One of the more unexpected of these is the way that the illogic that swims through the hidden places of the collective consciousness of our time so often rises to the bait I offer, and thus can be hooked and hauled in for closer examination.

Over the last few weeks, a fine example of the species has landed in my creel.  Back in July, in an earlier post in this sequence about the ways that the mythology of progress holds both science and religion hostage, I noted that fusion researchers have spent the last fifty years trying not to learn the obvious lesson taught by their repeated failures. Whether or not it’s possible to make a functioning fusion reactor, I pointed out, is immaterial at this point; the last half century of experiments have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that even if the thing can be done, the cost of building fusion reactors will be so high that fusion will never be economically viable as a source of electricity for the grid.

Before we go on, I’d like to ask everyone to reread that last sentence, and notice that this argument doesn’t claim that fusion reactors are impossible—that, in point of fact, it doesn’t deal at all with the issue of whether fusion power is technically feasible. This may seem like an obvious point, but I can assure you, dear reader, that it’s far from obvious to a good many of my readers. Over the weeks that followed, in fact, I fielded a flurry of comments chiding me for my supposed insistence that harnessing fusion power is impossible. Quite a range of different arguments were deployed in an effort to dispute this point, ranging from the plausible to the frankly silly; the one thing that none of these commenters seem to have noticed is that the claim they were imputing to me is one I hadn’t made.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that this is far from the first time this odd sort of paralogic has featured on the Archdruid Report comments page. A few years ago, for example, I was rash enough to point out in a post on the future of technology that the internet’s long-term viability in a deindustrializing world will not depend on whether maintaining an internet in such conditions is technically feasible, or whether it can do things that today’s geekoisie consider cool.  Rather, I suggested, the survival of the internet will depend on whether it can pay for itself in a world where energy and resources will be much more scarce and expensive than they are today, and whether it can compete with other ways of providing the same services that are less dependent on extravagant inputs of depleting resources and complex technological infrastructures.

I found the response to this suggestion utterly fascinating. The commenters who showed up to insist that the internet had to survive the end of the present age of fossil-fueled abundance didn’t dispute my argument; they didn’t mention it at all.  Instead, they pretended that the point I’d raised had never been brought into the discussion, and insisted over and over again that keeping the internet viable in a deindustrializing world was technically feasible, that the internet can do all kinds of things that today’s geekoisie consider cool, and that the survival of the internet was therefore certain. Even when I pointed out to them in the comments that they were evading the issue I was raising, they kept on trying to talk about technical feasibility and the cool stuff the internet can do, and to pretend that economic limits had never been mentioned.  This went on for three weeks of posts and commentary, until I finally shook my head and went on to the next topic.

This sort of paralogic isn’t unique; it isn’t even unusual.  Long before I started this blog, I noticed that any question at all about the economic viability of technological progress lies squarely in industrial civilization’s blind spot.  Pick any technology that fits the canned image of the future projected by pop culture, and try to talk about whether we can actually afford to pursue it—in most cases, this is a far more crucial question than most people realize, so it’s rarely difficult to find points to raise—and you can count on the identical response. For a long time, I wondered why this particular issue should be subject to such remarkable distortions of thought and conversation; over the course of the last few weeks, as I reflected on the latest round of paralogic in the context of the current series of posts, I think I’ve come to understand the reasons behind it.

To make sense of those reasons, it’s going to be necessary to take what will look like a drastic detour, and talk about the role of ritual theater in the world’s religions. I don’t happen to know of a faith on the planet that doesn’t have at least some examples of this very common practice. Modern societies are no exception to the rule; those of my readers who grew up Christian, for example, and  recall Nativity plays and Easter pageants from their childhoods, already know as much about ritual theater as they’ll need to know to grasp what follows.

Ritual theater doesn’t follow the same rules as the secular drama that’s found in today’s playhouses, cineplexes, and DVD racks.  There are no surprises in ritual theater, no unexpected plot twists, no unfamiliar characters, and for good reason.  The point of ritual theater in a religious context is to enact whatever’s seen as eternally true in the religious tradition that sponsors it. Depending on your religion, what’s eternally true may be revealed in some specific historical event—say, the Buddha beneath the Bo tree or Christ on the cross—or in some recurring natural event—say, the cycle of the seasons—or it may be permanently outside of time, symbolized by myths which “never happened but always are,” as the Greek philosopher Symmachus put it. One way or another, some blend of folk imagination and the creative genius of individuals makes these things visible in ritual theater, which represents (literally, re-presents) the eternal in a form that everyone can experience.

There’s a lot of variation between one religion’s ritual theater and another’s, but within any given tradition, the plot outline and the emotional reactions sought by the performance tend to be as stereotyped as a politician’s campaign speech. Pick any of the early Greek tragedies—these were originally enacted at religious festivals in Athens, and so are classic examples of ritual theater in more senses than one—and you can pretty much count on watching a proud and gifted individual have his life destroyed by the incomprehensible decrees of the gods.  That was the structure of ancient Greek ritual drama, and the response, as Aristotle describes it, was an emotional catharsis of pity and terror in which an ancient Greek audience reconciled themselves to their place in the cosmos as mortals subject to the awesome and inscrutable immortals.

It would have been unthinkable to Aeschylus or Sophocles to have a god pop up in the middle of the stage at the climax of the play and fix everything.  What was utterly inappropriate in the early Greek ritual theater, though, became common in the later secular drama of the classical world, where deus ex machina—literally, the god out of the stage machinery—was so common as to become a catchphrase. Christian ritual theater, which emerged out of late classical drama, proceeded to take that experience as its central theme. What JRR Tolkien in a brilliant essay called “eucatastrophe”—the sudden, shattering reversal that transforms tragedy into triumph—thus became the core experience of Christian ritual theater, passed on via the mystery plays of the Middle Ages straight through to the passion plays and parochial school pageants of the present time.

Leap to the other end of the Old World and you’ll find a completely different mode of ritual theater in the Noh drama of Japan. The most common story line among Noh plays has a wandering priest making his way through unfamiliar country.  He happens on someone he takes for an ordinary village girl, or some other perfectly natural person. As she sings and dances her story, though, it gradually becomes apparent that she is a supernatural being of some kind—a ghost, a demon, a spirit or a deity—whose destiny the priest may change through his own power and piety, or may simply witness. The whole drama serves to communicate the distinctive religious vision of Japanese folk culture, in which the supernatural shimmers through the apparent solidity of the ordinary world like colors in shot silk.

Civil religions have their own traditions of ritual theater.  Here in America, back in the day, school pageants on George Washington’s birthday and civic celebrations on the Fourth of July routinely copied all the standard forms of religious ritual theater, complete with the utterly stereotyped plots and the predictable emotional reactions common throughout the genre. I don’t happen to know whether the Young Communists’ Leagues of the former Eastern Bloc countries did the same sort of pageants for May Day, though I wouldn’t be the least surprised to learn that they did. Tolerably often, though, the ritual theater of civil religions takes a less self-consciously dramatic form, and gets acted out in some facsimile of real life:  think of the show trials of Stalin’s Russia, in which thousands of people were coerced into acting out the role of wicked dupes of the capitalists, and were then rewarded for their performances with a bullet to the brain.

The civil religion of progress by and large has kept its own ritual theater out of the realm of formal performance, but makes up for this by trying to enact its stereotyped dramas in every possible informal venue. Those of my readers who haven’t been hiding under a rock since the days of Galileo already know the plot of those dramas right down to the finest of details. They begin with a lone genius who shakes himself free of the prejudices and superstitions of the ages, and thus manages to see some part of the world clearly for the first time. The dramatic action emerges out of the conflict between the lone genius and his (or, very rarely, her) less gifted contemporaries, who defend those prejudices and superstitions against the efforts of the genius to upset the applecart of conventional thought.

The plot thus defined includes a few variations, mostly involving the end of the story.  The genius may be condemned and killed by the outraged authorities of his time, only to be vindicated and glorified by future generations.  He may struggle on gamely to the end of his life, ignored or denounced by all right-thinking people, and then be vindicated and glorified by future generations.  Alternatively, he may triumph over the opposition by proving his case conclusively, and having vindicated himself, is then glorified by future generations. In each case, the emotional reaction expected from the audience is the same: identifying themselves with the future generations just mentioned, they are called on to glorify the great heroes of progress, to rejoice in the salvation from the prejudiced and superstitious past that these heroes have conferred on them, and to wait expectantly for the even more wonderful things that future heroes of progress will inevitably bring the world in times to come.

A detail worth special attention here, though, is the debate between the lone genius and his prejudiced and superstitious adversaries that always, explicitly or implicitly, fills the middle act of the drama. There’s no more thoroughly stereotyped scene in the whole field of ritual theater. The adversaries of progress have a set of standard lines assigned to them by the standard plot.  They are supposed to point out that whatever idea or technology the lone genius is championing violates the immemorial order of the cosmos or the authoritative teachings of the past, to insist that whatever it is can’t be true or won’t work, and to warn that if the idea is accepted or the technology put into general use, some kind of horrible fate will follow in short order.

The lone genius, in turn, is assigned a set of standard counterarguments to overcome these ceremonial talking points. He is supposed to say that the onward march of human knowledge has rendered the immemorial order of the cosmos and the authoritative teachings of the past obsolete, that whatever innovation he’s championed is true or will work, and that it will bring immense benefits to the human race in the years to come. Both sides recite their parts in the second act, fulfilling the requirements of the script, and in the third act the lone genius triumphs, posthumously or otherwise.

I’ve pointed out already ina previous post in this sequence that this stereotyped script has been pushed onto the history of thought incessantly by the popular culture of our age, even when it’s been necessary to twist history hopelessly out of shape to make it fit the storyline, as it’s usually been.  It’s important to recognize how great a distortion the ritual theater of progress has imposed on our sense of our own past, but it’s at least as important to notice the ways in which the same ritual theater structures debates over technology here and now.

The discussions of fusion power and the future of the internet I mentioned earlier are cases in point. The issue I was raising was not one of the ceremonial arguments that the opponents of technology are supposed to utter in the second act of the drama. I broke the rules of the ritual theater of progress, and after a brief interval of consternation, the other actors in the drama did the logical thing and brought out their own ceremonial counterarguments, as though I hadn’t been so silly as to forget my proper lines.  When I proceeded to break the rules again by drawing attention to the issue I’d actually raised, rather than the one that I was assigned by the script, they got thoroughly flummoxed; some retired in dismay, while others kept on trying to follow their scripts even though I’d gone out and ignored mine.

I can sympathize with their feelings. Still, it’s probably worth noting here that not all discussions of science, technology, and other holy symbols of the civil religion of progress are meant to provide venues for the ritual theater of that faith. If fusion power and the internet were purely spiritual realities—say, two of the blessings that the faithful could expect to receive after death in some kind of techno-heaven buzzing with starships, jetpacks, and domed cities—that would be a different matter, but fusion reactors, internet data centers, and the like are also expected to solve practical difficulties here on earth. That means that a discussion of their prospects arguably ought to extend beyond the limits of ritual theater, and include points that aren’t part of the ceremonial dialogue.

That is to say, whether a technology makes economic sense in a world of rapidly depleting resources and spiraling economic dysfunction is a valid concern, whether or not that concern conforms to the stereotyped arguments of our time. If some future iteration of ITER finally gets a sustained fusion reaction going, that’s an intriguing bit of experimental physics, but unless that event leads to the discovery of some way to maintain such a reaction that costs a couple of orders of magnitude less than $14 billion per reactor, that’s all it is—and since every cheaper option has been tried in half a century of very well funded experimentation, it’s a safe bet that in fact, that’s all it is.

This was already recognized in the early 1980s. I recall independent studies in the appropriate tech scene in those days, which showed that if the relatively simple tokamak reactors being tested in those days could be made to work, the result would be a power plant that would produce about as much electricity as a standard fission reactor, at roughly ten times the cost. Given that fission power is the most expensive source of electricity in common use today, and has never been economically viable anywhere on earth without massive government subsidies, this is not exactly encouraging.

It’s thus not hard to imagine a future in which, let’s say, excited physicists announce to the world that sustained nuclear fusion has finally been accomplished, using some elaborate new reactor design ten times more expensive, adjusting for inflation, than those relatively simple tokamak reactors that failed to do the job in the early 1980s. Running the numbers, governments and utility companies calculate that, including all economies of scale, each new fusion reactor would cost a hundred times as much as a comparable fission reactor, with consumer bills to match. Has the energy crisis been solved? Not in any sense meaningful in the real world.

In the real world, a technology has to be economically feasible to build and use, or it doesn’t matter.  It really is as simple as that. The galloping economic expansion of the age of cheap abundant energy now visible in history’s rearview mirror made it possible to ignore that unwelcome reality for a time, or at least to pretend that it didn’t matter—you’ll notice that the grandiose plans to cover Manhattan with a dome and give it a year-round climate of 72°F and no rain, along with a great many other economically preposterous projects of the recent past, never even got to the detailed-blueprint stage.

The coming of the age of scarcity that’s now upon us, though, draws a hard line under such fantasies. From now on into the foreseeable future, the first question that has to be asked about any technological project is “Can we afford to use it?”  The second, which needs to be asked immediately after the first, is “Are there ways to do the same thing less expensively?” These questions may not be part of the ritual theater of the civil religion of progress, but I’d like to suggest that consoling true believers in that faith with assurances of the invincibility of their surrogate deity may be less important just now than dealing with the imminent impact of the end of abundance and the twilight of the industrial age.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Not Written in the Stars

When Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God—in less metaphorical terms, the collapse of the Christian faith that had provided the foundations for European social life since the Dark Ages—he saw that event as a turning point in human history, a shattering and liberating transformation that would open the road to the Overman. That hope turned out to be misplaced, and it’s worth keeping in mind that any equally grandiose claims that might be made about the consequences of the death of progress will likely face disappointment along the same lines.

Even so, the collapse of the civil religion of progress marks a significant shift, as important in our time as was the event that Nietzsche announced turned out to be in his.  Like its forerunner, the death of progress promises to kick the props out from under a great deal of today’s conventional wisdom, and pose serious challenges to some of the industrial world’s most central institutions. The case I have particularly in mind here is modern science, and in particular the impressively large institutional forms that have been built up around the scientific project over the last century or so.  Those forms were achievable only because a widely shared faith in progress made resources and funding available for them, and their continued existence depends just as directly on the survival of that same faith.

A specific example may be helpful here, so let’s consider the future of astronomical observatories.  An observatory big and high-tech enough to contribute significantly to the advance of astronomy can be a very expensive proposition—the Palomar observatory outside San Diego, for example, costs over US$10,000 a night to operate—and the ebbing tide of prosperity in the industrial world is starting to make those costs hard to cover.  Here in the US, the National Science Foundation has proposed to delete the funding for six government-funded observatories, while many observatories owned by universities are facing funding cuts or closure as a result of similar pressures. 

Observatories are particularly vulnerable in this context because they don’t make a profit for anybody. At a time when computer science and molecular biology departments at many universities increasingly operate as commercial enterprises, churning out patentable products to line the pockets of professors and university administrators alike, astronomers have got to be feeling like the red-headed stepchildren of academe; no matter how excited they and their colleagues may be about discovering a new type of quasar or what have you, the discovery’s not going to make them or their university any money, and the university administration is just as aware of this difference as the astronomers are.  These days, the sciences are being sorted out into two camps, those that produce technologies useful to government and business and those that don’t; I’m sure my readers need no help figuring out which of those camps is getting the lion’s share of research dollars these days, and which is being left to twist in the wind.

At this point I’d like to take the discussion in a deliberately improbable, even whimsical direction.  It so happens that astronomers do have another potential source of income available to them—a funding source that could probably support many if not most of the existing observatories in the style to which they’ve become accustomed, and would be completely independent of government grants and the whims of university administrations alike. It would require a certain number of grad students to get some additional training, but it could be done with equipment that can be found in any observatory. What’s more, it was the funding source for several of history’s most important astronomical projects.

It’s as simple as it is elegant, really.  All that would be required is that observatory staff would have to learn how to cast and interpret horoscopes.

Yes, I’m well aware that that’s not going to happen, and in a moment we’ll talk about the reasons why, but let’s set that aside for now and consider the thing in the abstract.  Despite the fulminations and wishful thinking of the rationalists among us, astrology’s not going to go away any time soon.  It’s been a living  tradition for well over two millennia in close to its current form, and is as lively now as it’s ever been.  The rationalist crusade against it has been a resounding flop, having failed to make the least dent in its popularity; today astrology supports its own economic sector of publishers, computer firms, annual conferences, correspondence schools, and many other businesses, not to mention thousands of professional astrologers who make a living casting birth charts, annual progressions, horary charts, and other astrological readings for a large and enthusiastic clientele.

Not only could astronomers tap into this market, it actually takes a continuing effort on their part to avoid doing so.  I’ve been told by astronomer friends that observatories in the US routinely field calls from people who are a little confused about the difference between astronomy and astrology, and want someone to cast their horoscopes. Put a new message on the answering machine, teach the receptionist how to take down birth data, and that’s fixed.  The biggest and most prestigious observatories would have the most to gain—what Hollywood hunk or celebutante, for example, could resist the temptation to drop five figures on a genuine horoscope from the Palomar Observatory, complete with a glossy star field photo of the second or so of arc that was rising on the ecliptic when he or she was born?

Nor would this be anything new in the history of astronomy.  Johannes Kepler paid the bills while he was working out the laws of planetary motion by casting horoscopes; Claudius Ptolemy did the same thing more than a millennium earlier while he was writing the Almagest. (Granted, neither man was in it just for the money; Ptolemy also wrote the most influential treatise on astrology ever penned, the Tetrabiblos, while Kepler was a brilliant innovator in astrology—the Keplerian aspects are very nearly as important in the history of modern astrology as the laws of planetary motion are in that of astronomy.) For that matter, the roots of modern astronomy reach deep into the traditions of the astronomer-priests of Sumeria and Babylonia, who made the first known systematic records of planetary movements and, not coincidentally, cast the first known horoscopes.

Much more could be said along these lines, but it’s probably better to stop here, so that my rationalist readers don’t fling themselves at their computer screens in a purely reflexive attempt to leap through cyberspace and wring my neck.  Of course the modest proposal I’ve just offered has about as much chance of being taken seriously as Jonathan Swift’s famous suggestion that the Irish ought to support themselves by selling their infants for meat, and it was made in much the same spirit.  We can take it as given that in today’s America, astronomers will embrace astrology on the same day that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins fall on their knees together and accept Jesus as their lord and savior.  Nor, for that matter, am I interested in rehashing the weary debates over the validity of astrology. The issue I want to raise here is why the suggestion that astronomers might consider taking up astrology summons up so violent and visceral a reaction on the part of so many people these days.

It’s important to get past the standard rhetoric that surrounds the subject—the insistence on the part of rationalists that astrology is unacceptable because it’s irrational, medieval, and just plain wrong. Sports fandom is well up there on the scale of irrationality, and yet it’s perfectly acceptable for astronomers to be rabid fans of the local baseball team; reenactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism are about as medieval as you can get, and yet an astronomer who belongs to such a group faces no criticism; as for just plain wrong, your average economist has astrologers beat three falls out of three—you’ll never catch an astrologer claiming that the sun will rise in the west tomorrow morning and then never set again, while it’s par for the course for economists to insist that the speculative bubble du jour will never pop, that the laws of economics can trump the laws of physics and geology, and so on. Yet you’ll never hear scientists denouncing economics as the crackpot pseudoscience that it arguably is.

What puts astrology outside the pale for today’s astronomers and the rest of the scientific community, rather, is that the collective imagination of the modern world assigns it to the dismal past from which the surrogate messiah of progress is forever saving us. Like the Christianity from which it drew a great many of its central metaphors, the civil religion of progress has a very wide streak of moral dualism; there’s the side of the angels in white—or, rather, the researchers in white lab coats—and then there’s the side of the devils in some infernal equivalent of Madras plaid, and in contemporary culture, there’s no question about the side of the border on which astrology belongs. It’s part of the kingdom of anti-progress, the exact equivalent of the Christian notion of the kingdom of Antichrist.

The white-hot passion with which so many scientists condemn astrology and other systems of rejected knowledge thus has its roots in the identity that scientists are taught to assume by their education and their professional culture.  From the time of Francis Bacon right down to the present, scientists have been encouraged to think of themselves as laborers in the great cause of progress, leading humanity forward out of the superstitious past toward a brighter and better future of ever-increasing reason, knowledge and power.  From the 19th century onward, in turn, this is the image of themselves that scientists have by and large tried to project into the wider society, with varying degrees of success.

That kind of acting out of an ideal can be a dangerous thing to do, and civil religions rarely have much sense of the risks involved. Theist faiths with at least a few centuries of experience under their belts tend to be a good deal more cautious; Buddhist monks who visualize themselves as bodhisattvas and Christians practicing the imitatio Christi have traditional protections to keep the identification of the self with an ideal figure from spinning out of control into psychological imbalance. Those of my readers who, as I did, had the chance to spend some time around old-fashioned Communists will have seen some of what happens when those protections are neglected; the leader of the proletariat who goes to great lengths to avoid noticing that the proletariat is not following him, and melts down completely when this latter detail becomes too evident to ignore, was once a tolerably common type.

That type became much more common in the second half of the 20th century, when it started to take effort not to notice the fact that the American proletariat wasn’t going to follow a Marxist lead. In the same way, I don’t think it’s accidental that the current rationalist crusade against religion, astrology, and everything else it likes to label irrational, medieval, wrong, etc., shifted into overdrive in the final decades of the 20th century, right about the time that it first became really difficult to justify the blanket claim that progress was always as inevitable as it was beneficent. Like their theist cousins, civil religions fairly often respond to challenges to their core beliefs by moving toward the extremes and looking for somebody to blame, and the cultural politics that assigned the label of “anti-progress” to certain traditional practices such as astrology gave the civil religion of progress an assortment of easy targets once the onward march of progress began to lose its appeal.

The difficulty with such exercises in scapegoat-hunting is that they do nothing to solve the problem that drives them, and may actually get in the way of addressing serious challenges. The status of science in contemporary American society is a case in point. Not long ago, when a qualified scientist got up in front of the public and spoke about some matter of scientific fact, most Americans took him at his word.  Nowadays?  One of the core reasons for the failure of climate activism in the US is that a great many Americans know that an expert opinion from a distinguished researcher can be bought for the price of a research grant, and have seen scare tactics used to push political agendas so many times that another round of dire warnings from experts doesn’t impress them any more. When climate activists chose to rely on the prestige of science to back up a standard-issue scare campaign, in other words, they were making a serious strategic mistake, on which their opponents were not slow to capitalize.

To some extent the collapse in the prestige of science has unfolded from the way that scientific opinion has whirled around like a weathervane on certain very public issues in recent decades. Plenty of people alive today still recall when continental drift was crackpot pseudoscience, polyunsaturated fats were good for you, and ionizing radiation was measured in “sunshine units.” It’s important to the workings of science that scientists should be permitted to change their minds on the arrival of new evidence, but that necessary openness clashes with the efforts of the scientific community to claim a privileged place in the wider conversations of our time—for example, by insisting that claims by scientific authorities should not be challenged from outside the discipline no matter how many times these same authorities have changed their minds.  Add to that clash the increasingly visible corruption of science by financial interests—the articles in medical journals that are bought and paid for by pharmaceutical firms eager to promote their products, the studies whose conclusions reliably parrot the propaganda of their funding sources, and so on—and you’ve got the makings of a really serious public relations disaster.

That disaster is not going to be prevented, or even delayed, by denouncing astrologers and their ilk. Mind you, it may succeed in making astrology more popular than it otherwise would be, for the same reason that the Republican Party’s bizarre habit of defining anything it doesn’t like as Communism may yet convince a good many Americans to give Marx a second chance. Given the very real pressures being brought to bear on scientists and scientific institutions in the current environment of economic contraction and violent political partisanship, it’s unlikely that anything more constructive will be on anyone’s agenda until well after the damage is done—and it’s the bad luck of astronomy, along with a great many other sciences not currently participating in the worst of the abuses, that it’s likely to be tarred with the same brush as those who richly deserve it.

Factor in the twilight of the civil religion of progress, though, and the ethical and political crisis of contemporary science becomes something considerably larger. In a world of the sort we’re most likely to encounter in the decades ahead, in which sustained economic growth is a subject for history books, a growing fraction of Americans live in gritty suburban slums with only the most intermittent access to electricity and running water, internet service costs more than the median monthly income, and let’s not even talk about how many people can afford basic modern medical care, faith in the inevitability and beneficence of progress will make roughly as much sense to most Americans as faith in the worker’s paradise of true Communism did to most citizens of the Soviet Union in 1980 or so. In such a future, government funding for scientific research will be at the mercy of the first demagogue who realizes that gutting the National Science Foundation, and every other scientific program that doesn’t further the immediate needs of the Pentagon, is a ticket to a landslide victory in the next election.

So long as scientists keep on thinking of themselves as heroic workers in the grand cause of progress, furthermore, any attempt on their part to counter such efforts will labor under brutal limits.  The vision of futurity central to their identity is already becoming the subject of bitter jokes of the “I believe I was promised a jetpack” variety.  As the shift in the collective imagination implied by those jokes continues to spread, like the old-fashioned Communists mentioned earlier in this essay, scientists won’t be able to respond to their critics without jettisoning their traditional rhetoric, and they won’t be able to jettison the rhetoric without abandoning the heart of their public identity. That’s a trap from which very few organizations and social movements ever manage to escape.

Thus it’s uncomfortably easy to imagine a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2070 or so, say, that resembles nothing so much as the national convention of one of the old-line American Communist parties eighty or ninety years earlier—a small group of old men going through the motions of an earlier time, repeating decades-old slogans, voting on resolutions that matter to no one else on the planet, and grimly trying to pretend that history hasn’t left them sitting in the dust. In such a future, those astronomical observatories that haven’t been stripped of metal by looters and left to the wind and rain might find a second life as homes for the very rich—it’s just as easy to imagine the attendees at the convention I’ve just described muttering bitterly about the Chinese trillionaire who’s just had the former Palomar Observatory remodeled into a mansion, and boasting to reporters from 2070’s mass media about the spectacular view from his new home.

The point that needs to be grasped here is that the institutional structure of science in America and other industrial nations—the archipelago of university departments, institutes, and specialized facilities for research that provide the economic and practical framework for science as it’s practiced today—faces massive challenges as we move forward into the deindustrial world. On the one hand, the raw fiscal burden of supporting that structure in an age of economic contraction and environmental payback will become increasingly difficult for any nation to meet, and especially challenging for the United States, as it descends from its age of imperial extravagance into a far more tightly constrained future. On the other, the emotional commitment of scientists to the civil religion of progress, and to an understanding of the purpose and goals of science that only makes sense in the context of that religion, places harsh burdens on any attempt to preserve that structure once popular faith in progress dissolves.

It might still be possible to maintain scientific research as a living tradition in the centuries immediately ahead of us. In future posts, I plan on talking about ways in which that might be done, and the reasons why I think a project of that sort is worth pursuing. Still, it’s crucial to realize that nothing guarantees the success of such a project; to borrow a phrase from the astrologers, the survival of science as a living practice is not written in the stars.


On a (hopefully) more cheery note, I’m pleased to announce that my latest book from New Society Publications, Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit, is now rolling off the presses. Right now, since it’s not quite on bookstore shelves, it can still be preordered from the publisher at a 20% discount; those of my readers interested in making use of that offer should visit the publisher’s website and check it out.