By the time many of my readers get to this week’s essay here on The Archdruid Report, it will be Christmas Day. Here in America, that means that we’re finally most of the way through one of the year’s gaudiest orgies of pure vulgar greed, the holiday shopping season, which strikes me as rather an odd way to celebrate the birth of someone whose teachings so resolutely critiqued the mindless pursuit of material goodies. If, as that same person pointed out, it’s impossible to serve both God and Mammon, the demon of wealth, it’s pretty clear which of those two personages most Americans—including no small number who claim to be Christians—really consider the reason for the season.
A long time before that stable in Bethlehem received its most famous tenants, though, the same day was being celebrated across much of the northern temperate zone. The reason has to do with one of those details everyone knew before the invention of electric lighting and few people remember now, the movement of the apparent point of sunrise along the eastern horizon during the year. Before the printing press made calendars ubiquitous, that was a standard way of gauging the changing seasons: the point of sunrise swings from southeast to northeast as winter in the northern hemisphere gives way to summer and from northeast back to southeast as summer gives way again to winter, and if you have a way to track the apparent motion, you can follow the yearly cycle with a fair degree of precision.
This movement is like the swing of a pendulum: it’s very fast in the middle of the arc, and slows to a dead stop on either end. That makes the spring and fall equinoxes easy to identify—if you have a couple of megaliths lined up just right, for example, the shadow of one will fall right on the foot of the other on the days of the equinoxes, and a little to one side or the other one day before or after—but the summer and winter solstices are a different matter. At those times of year, the sun seems to grind to a halt around the 17th of June or December, you wait for about a week, and then finally the sun comes up a little further south on June 25th or a little further north on December 25th, and you know for a fact that the wheel of the seasons is still turning.
That’s why Christmas is when it is. I’ve read, though I don’t have the reference handy, that shepherds in the Levant back in the day kept watch over their flocks in the fields in late summer, not in December, and so—if the New Testament narrative is to be believed—Jesus was something like four months old when the first Christmas rolled around. As far as I know, nobody knows exactly how the present date got put in place, but I suspect the old solar symbolism had a lot to do with it; in those days, the Christian church was less prone to the rigid literalism that’s become common in recent centuries, and also quite aware of seasonal and astronomical cycles—consider the complicated rules for setting the date of Easter, in which movements of the sun and moon both play a part.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about such things as the holiday shopping season stumbles toward its end and a troubled, weary, and distracted nation prepares to bid a hearty good riddance to 2014. Of course Druids generally think about such things; the seasonal cycle has had an important role in our traditions since those were revived in the eighteenth century. Even so, it’s been more on my mind than usual. In particular, as I think about the shape of things in the world right now, what keeps coming to mind is the image of the old loremasters, waiting in the darkness at the end of a cold winter’s night to see the sunrise begin swinging back in the direction of spring.
Those of my readers who see such an image as hopelessly out of place just now have, I grant, quite a bit of evidence on their side. Most notably, the coming of 2015 marks a full decade since production of conventional petroleum worldwide hit its all-time peak and began to decline. Those who were around in the early days of the peak oil scene, as I was, will doubtless recall how often and eagerly the more optimistic members of that scene insisted that once the peak arrived, political and business interests everywhere would be forced to come to terms with the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. Once that harsh but necessary awakening took place, they argued, the transition to sustainable societies capable of living within the Earth’s annual budget of sunlight would finally get under way.
Of course that’s not what happened. Instead, political and business interests responded to the peak by redefining what counts as crude oil, pouring just about any flammable liquid they could find into the world’s fuel tank—ethanol, vegetable oil, natural gas liquids, “dilbit” (diluted bitumen) from tar sands, you name it—while scraping the bottom of the barrel for petroleum via hydrofracturing, ultradeep offshore wells, and other extreme extraction methods. All of those require much higher inputs of fossil fuel energy per barrel produced than conventional crude does, so that a growing fraction of the world’s fossil fuel supply has had to be burned just to produce more fossil fuel. Did any whisper of this far from minor difficulty find its way into the cheery charts of “all liquids” and the extravagantly rose-colored projections of future production? Did, for example, any of the official agencies tasked with tracking fossil fuel production consider subtracting an estimate for barrels of oil equivalent used in extraction from the production figures, so that we would have at least a rough idea of the world’s net petroleum production? Surely you jest.
The need to redirect an appreciable fraction of the world’s fossil fuel supply into fossil fuel production, in turn, had significant economic costs. Those were shown by the simultaneous presence of prolonged economic dysfunction and sky-high oil prices: a combination, please note, that last appeared during the energy crises of the 1970s, and should have served as a warning sign that something similar was afoot. Instead of paying attention, political and business interests around the world treated the abrupt fraying of the economy as a puzzling anomaly to be drowned in a vat of cheap credit—when, that is, they didn’t treat it as a public relations problem that could be solved by proclaiming a recovery that didn’t happen to exist. Economic imbalances accordingly spun out of control; paper wealth flowed away from those who actually produce goods and service into the hands of those who manipulate fiscal abstractions; the global economy was whipsawed by convulsive fiscal crisis in 2009 and 2009, and shows every sign of plunging into a comparable round of turmoil right now.
I wish I could say that the alternative energy side of the equation had responded to any of this in a way that might point toward a better future, but no such luck. With embarrassingly few exceptions, the things that got funding, or even any significant amount of discussion, were the sorts of overpriced white-elephant systems that only make economic sense in the presence of lavish government subsidies, and are utterly dependent on a technostructure that’s only viable given exactly the sort of cheap abundant fossil fuels that those systems are theoretically going to replace. Grid-tied photovoltaic systems, gargantuan wind turbines, and vast centralized solar-thermal facilities soaked up the attention and the funding, while simple, affordable, thoroughly proven technologies such as solar water heating got another decade of malign neglect. As for using less—the necessary foundation for anything approaching a sustainable future—that remained utterly taboo in polite company.
Back in 2005, a then-famous study done for the Department of Energy by a team headed by Robert Hirsch showed that to get through declining oil supplies without massive crisis, preparations for the descent would have to begin twenty years before the peak arrived. Since the peak of conventional crude oil production had already arrived in 2005, this warning was perhaps a little tardy, but a crash program focusing on conservation and the conversion of energy-intensive infrastructure to less vulnerable technologies might still have done much. Instead, we collectively wasted another decade on daydreams—and all the while, week after dreary week, the mainstream media has kept up a steady drumbeat of articles claiming to prove that this or that or the other thing has disproved peak oil. Given all this, is there any reason to expect anything other than a continuation of the same dysfunctional behavior, with the blind leading the blind until they all tumble together down the long bitter slope ahead?
As it happens, I think there is.
Part of it, oddly enough, is the steady drumbeat of articles just referred to, each claiming to have disproved peak oil once and for all. The last time the subject was shouted down, in the early 1980s, there wasn’t that kind of ongoing barrage; after a few blandly confident denunciations, the subject just got dropped from the media so hard it would have left a dent on a battleship’s armored deck, and was consigned thereafter to a memory hole straight out of George Orwell. Presumably that was the intention this time, too, but something has shifted. In the early 1980s, when the media started spouting the same sort of cornucopian drivel they’re engaged in this time, the vast majority of the people who claimed to be concerned about energy and the environment trotted along after them with scarcely a dissenting bleat. That hasn’t happened in the present case; if I may indulge in a bit of very edgy irony here, this is one of the very few ways in which it really is different this time.
It’s worth glancing back over how that difference unfolded. To be sure, the brief heyday during which media reports took the end of the age of cheap abundant energy seriously stopped abruptly when puffing up the fracking bubble became the order of the day; the aforementioned drumbeat of alleged disproofs got going; those of us who kept on talking about peak oil started getting pressure from mainstream (that is, corporate-funded) environmentalists to drop the subject, get on board with the climate change bandwagon, and join them in the self-defeating rut that’s kept the environmental movement from accomplishing anything worthwhile for the last thirty years. In response, a certain number of bloggers and speakers who had been involved in peak oil discussions did in fact drop the subject, and those peak oil organizations that had committed themselves to a grant-funded organizational model fell on hard times. A fair number of us stayed the course, though. Far more significantly, so did a very substantial portion of our audience.
That latter point is the thing that I find most encouraging. Over the last decade, in the teeth of constant propaganda from the mass media and a giddy assortment of other sources, the number of people in the United States and elsewhere who are aware of the ongoing decline of industrial society, who recognize the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, and who are willing to make changes in their own lives in response to these things, somehow failed to dwindle away to near-irrelevance, as it did the last time around. If anything—though I don’t have hard statistics to back this perception, just a scattering of suggestive proxy measurements—that number seems to have increased.
When I speak to audiences about catabolic collapse and the twilight of the industrial age these days, for example, I don’t get anything like as many blank looks or causal dismissals as those concepts routinely fielded even a few years ago. Books on peak oil and related topics, mine among them, remain steady sellers, and stats on this blog have zigzagged unevenly but relentlessly upwards over the years, regularly topping 300,000 page views a month this autumn. Less quantifiable but more telling, at least to me, are the shifts I’ve watched in people I know. Some who used to reject the whole idea of imminent and ongoing decline with scornful laughter have slowly come around to rueful admissions that, well, maybe we really are in trouble; others, starting from the same place, now denounce any such notion with the sort of brittle rage that you normally see in people who are losing the ability to make themselves keep believing the dogma they’ve committed themselves to defending.
Even more telling are the young people I meet who have sized up the future with cold eyes, and walked away from the officially approved options spread before them like so many snares by a society whose easy promises a great many of them no longer believe. Each year that passes brings me more encounters with people in their late teens and twenties who have recognized that the rules that shaped their parents’ and grandparents’ lives don’t work any more, that most of the jobs they have been promised either don’t exist or won’t exist for much longer, that a college education these days is a one-way ticket to decades of debt peonage, and that most of the other institutions that claim to be there to help them don’t have their best interests in mind. They’re picking up crafts and skilled trades, living with their parents or with groups of other young people, and learning to get by on less, because the price of doing otherwise is more than they’re willing to pay.
More broadly, more and more people seem to be turning their backs on the American dream, or more precisely on the bleak waking nightmare into which the American dream has metastasized over the last few decades. A growing number of people have walked away from the job market and found ways to support themselves outside a mainstream economy that’s increasingly stacked against them. Even among those who are still in the belly of the beast, the sort of unthinking trust in business as usual that used to be tolerably common straight through American society is increasingly rare these days. Outside the narrowing circle of those who benefit from the existing order of society, a crisis of legitimacy is in the making, and it’s not simply the current US political system that’s facing the brunt of that crisis—it’s the entire crumbling edifice of American collective life.
That crisis of legitimacy won’t necessarily lead to better things. It could all too easily head in directions no sane person would wish to go. I’ve written here more than once about the possibility that the abject and ongoing failure of constructive leadership in contemporary America could lay the groundwork for the rise of something closely akin to the fascist regimes of Depression-era Europe, as people desperate for an alternative to the Republicratic consensus frozen into place inside the Washington DC beltway turn to a charismatic demagogue who promises to break the gridlock and bring change. Things could also go in even more destructive directions; a nation that ships tens of thousands of its young people in uniform to an assortment of Middle Eastern countries, teaches them all the latest trends in counterinsurgency warfare, and then dumps them back home in a collapsing economy without the benefits they were promised, has only itself to blame if some of them end up applying their skills in the service of a domestic insurgency against the present US government.
Those possibilities are real, and so are a galaxy of other potential outcomes that are considerably worse than what exists in America today. That said, constructive change is also a possibility. The absurd extravagances that most Americans still think of as an ordinary standard of living were always destined to be a short-term phenomenon, and we’re decades past the point at which a descent from those giddy heights could have been made without massive disruptions; no possible combination of political, social, economic, and environmental transformations at this point can change those unwelcome facts. Even so, there’s much worth doing that can still be done. We can at least stop making things worse than they have to be; we can begin shifting, individually and collectively, to technologies and social forms that will still make sense in a world of tightly constrained energy and resource supplies; we can preserve things of value to the near, middle, and far future that might otherwise be lost; we might, given luck and hard work, be able to revive enough of the moribund traditions of American democracy and voluntary association to provide an alternative down the road to the naked rule of force and fraud.
None of that will be easy, but then all the easy options went whistling down the wind a long time ago. No doubt there will still be voices insisting that Americans can have the lifestyles to which they think they’re entitled if only this, or that, or the other thing were to happen; no doubt the collapse of the fracking bubble will be followed by some equally gaudy and dishonest set of cargo-cult rhetoric meant to convince the rubes that happy days will shortly be here again, just as soon as billions of dollars we don’t happen to have are poured down whatever the next rathole du jour happens to be. If enough of us ignore those claims and do what must be done—and “enough” in this context does not need to equal a majority, or even a large minority, of Americans—there’s still much of value that can be accomplished in the time before us.
To return to the metaphor that opened this post, that first slight shift of sunrise north along the horizon from the solstice point, faint as it is, is a reminder that winter doesn’t last forever, even though the coldest nights and the worst of the winter storms come after that point is past. In the same way, bleak as the immediate prospects may be, there can still be a future worth having on the far side of the crisis of our age, and our actions here and now can further the immense task of bringing such a future into being. In the new year, as I continue the current series of posts on the American future, I plan on talking at quite some length about some of the things that can be done and some of the possibilities that those actions might bring within reach.
And with that, I would like to wish my Christian readers a very merry Christmas, my readers of other faiths, a blessed holiday season, and to all my readers, a happy New Year.