I've commented here more than once that these essays draw their inspiration from quite a variety of sources. This week’s post is no exception to that rule. What kickstarted the train of thought that brought it into being was a walk along the seashore last weekend at Ocean City, Maryland, watching the waves roll in and thinking about the imminent death of a good friend.
East coast ocean resorts aren’t exactly a common destination for vacations in October, but then I wasn’t there for a vacation. I think most of my readers are aware that I’m a Freemason; it so happens that three organizations that supervise certain of the higher degrees of Masonry in Maryland took advantage of cheap off-season hotel rates to hold their annual meetings in Ocean City last weekend. Those readers who like to think of Masonry as a vast conspiracy of devil-worshipping space lizards, or whatever the Masonophobic paranoia du jour happens to be these days, would have been heartily disappointed by the weekend’s proceedings: a few dozen guys in off-the-rack business suits or cheap tuxedos, most of them small businessmen, skilled tradesmen, or retirees, donning the ornate regalia of an earlier time and discussing such exotic and conspiratorial topics as liability insurance for local lodges.
That said, a very modest sort of history was made at this year’s session of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of Maryland—as the name suggests, that’s the outfit that supervises the local bodies that confer the degrees of Royal Master and Select Master on qualified Master Masons in this state. More precisely, it’s one of two such bodies in Maryland. Back in the eighteenth century, Masonry in the United States split into two segregated branches, one for white and Native American Masons, the other for African-American Masons. Late in the twentieth century, as most other segregated institutions in American life dropped the color bar, the two branches of Masonry began a rapprochement as well.
Merger was never an option, and not for the reason you’re thinking. Both branches of Masonry in the US are proud organizations with their own traditions and customs, not to mention a deeply ingrained habit of prickly independence, and neither was interested in surrendering its own heritage, identity, and autonomy in a merger. Thus what happened was simply that both sides opened their doors to men of any skin color or ethnic background, formally recognized each other’s validity, and worked out the details involved in welcoming each other’s initiates as visiting brethren. Masonry being what it is, all this proceeded at a glacial pace, and since each state Grand Lodge makes its own rules, the glaciers moved at different speeds in different parts of the country.
A couple of years ago, the first time I was qualified to attend the state sessions of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, I voted on the final stage in the movement of one particular glacierette, the establishment of full recognition and visitation between the two Maryland Grand Councils. My vote didn’t greatly matter, all things considered—the resolution was approved unanimously—but I was still happy to be able to cast it. I was equally happy, at this year’s grand sessions, to see the Most Illustrious Grand Master of the historically African-American Grand Council welcomed to the other Grand Council’s meeting with the traditional honors, invited to the East to address the brethren, and given a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Of such small steps is history composed.
When somebody gets around to writing the definitive account of how the two branches of US Masonry healed the old division, this weekend’s session will merit something between a footnote and a sentence if it gets mentioned at all. I seriously doubt the historian will even notice that one of the attendees came a day early, stayed a day late, enjoyed the quiet pleasures that an uncluttered seashore and a half-empty resort town have to offer, and figured out a detail or two about the trajectory of industrial civilization while walking along the beach on a cloudy afternoon, as a stiff breeze blew spray off the long gray rollers coming in from the North Atlantic.
All in all, it was a propitious place for such reflections. America just now, after all, has more than a little in common with an October day in Ocean City. Look around at the gaudy attractions that used to attract so much attention from adoring crowds, and you’ll see many of the same things I saw along the boardwalk that day. The space program? It’s boarded up for the duration like any other amusement park in the off season, though the plywood’s plastered with equally garish posters announcing coming attractions off somewhere in the indefinite future. The American Dream? The lights are shining on the upper floors and big flashing neon signs say “OPEN FOR BUSINESS,” but all the ground floor entrances are padlocked shut and nobody can get in.
The consumer products that fill the same pacifying function in American society as cheap trinkets for the kids at a seaside resort are still for sale here and there, though many of the shops are already closed and shuttered. The shelves of those that are still open are looking decidedly bare, and what’s left has that oddly mournful quality that shoddy plastic gewgaws always get when they’ve been left on display too long. The one difference that stands out is that Ocean City in late October is mostly deserted, while the crowds are still here in today’s America, milling around aimlessly in front of locked doors and lightless windows, while the sky darkens with oncoming weather and the sea murmurs and waits.
But that wasn’t the thing that sparked this week’s reflections. The thing that sparked this week’s reflections was a stray question that came to mind when I abandoned the boardwalk to the handful of visitors who were strolling along it, and crossed the sand to the edge of the surf, thinking as I walked about the friend I mentioned earlier, who was lying in a hospital bed on the other side of the continent while his body slowly and implacably shut down. The boardwalk, the tourist attractions, and the hulking Babylonian glass-and-concrete masses of big hotels and condominiums stood on one side of me, while on the other, the cold gray sea surged and splashed and the terns danced past on the wind. The question in my mind was this: in a thousand years, which of these things will still be around?
That’s a surprisingly edgy question these days, and to make sense of that, I’d like to jump to the seemingly unrelated subject of an article that appeared a little while ago in the glossy environmental magazine Orion.
The article was titled “Peak Oil Fantasy,” and it was written by Charles Mann, who made a modest splash a little while back with a couple of mildly controversial popular histories of the New World before and after Europeans got there. Those of my readers who have been keeping track of the mainstream media’s ongoing denunciations of peak oil will find it wearily familiar. It brandished the usual set of carefully cherrypicked predictions about the future of petroleum production that didn’t happen to pan out, claimed on that basis that peak oil can’t happen at all because it hasn’t happened yet, leapt from there to the insistence that our very finite planet must somehow contain a limitless amount of petroleum, and wound up blustering that everybody ought to get with the program, “cast away the narrative of scarcity,” and just shut up about peak oil.
Mann’s article was a little more disingenuous than the run of the mill anti-peak-oil rant—it takes a certain amount of nerve to talk at length about M. King Hubbert, for example, without once mentioning the fact that he successfully predicted the peaking of US petroleum production in 1970, using the same equations that successfully predicted the peaking of world conventional petroleum production in 2005 and are being used to track the rise and fall of shale oil and other unconventional oil sources right now. Other than that, there’s nothing novel about “Peak Oil Fantasy,” as all but identical articles using the same talking points and rhetoric have appeared regularly for years now in The Wall Street Journal and other pro-industry, pave-the-planet publications. The only oddity is that a screed of this overfamiliar kind found its way into a magazine that claims to be all about environmental protection.
Even that isn’t as novel as I would wish. Ever since The Archdruid Report began publication, just short of a decade ago, I’ve been fielding emails and letters, by turns spluttering, coaxing, and patronizing, urging me to stop talking about peak oil, the limits to growth, and the ongoing decline and approaching fall of industrial society, and start talking instead about climate change, overpopulation, capitalism, or what have you. No few of these have come from people who call themselves environmentalists, and tolerably often they reference this or that environmental issue in trying to make their case.
The interesting thing about this ongoing stream of commentary is that I’ve actually discussed climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism at some length in these essays. When I point this out, I tend to get either a great deal of hemming and hawing, or the kind of sudden silence that lets you hear the surf from miles away. Clearly what I have to say about climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism isn’t what these readers are looking for, and just as clearly they’re not comfortable talking about the reasons why what I have to say isn’t what they’re looking for.
What interests me is that in the case of climate change, at least, there are aspects of that phenomenon that get the same response. If you ever want to reduce a room full of affluent liberal climate change activists to uncomfortable silence, for example, mention that the southern half of the state of Florida is going to turn into uninhabitable salt marsh in the next few decades no matter what anybody does. You can get the same response if you mention that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is so far advanced at this point that no human action can stop the drowning of every coastal city on the planet—and don’t you dare mention the extensive and growing body of research that shows that the collapse of major ice sheets doesn’t happen at a rate of a few inches of sea level rise per century, but includes sudden “marine transgressions” of many feet at a time instead.
This discomfort is all the more interesting because these same things were being loudly predicted not much more than a decade ago by affluent liberal climate change activists. As long as they were threats located off somewhere in the indefinite future, they were eagerly used as verbal ammunition, but each of them vanished from the rhetoric as soon as it stopped being a threat and turned into a reality. I noted in an essay some years back the way that methane boiling out of the Arctic Ocean, which was described in ghoulish detail over and over again as the climate change über-threat, suddenly got dropped like a anthropogenically heated rock by climate change activists the moment it began to happen.
It’s still happening. As Arctic temperatures soar, rivers of meltwater are sluicing across the Greenland ice cap and cascading into the surrounding oceans, and the ice cap itself, in the words of one climate scientist cited in the article just linked, is as full of holes as Swiss cheese due to meltwater streaming through its innards. While climate change activists insist ever more loudly that we can still fix everything if only the right things happen in the next five years—okay, ten—well, make that fifteen—the cold gray seas off Greenland aren’t listening. The only voices that matter to them come from the roar of waterfalls off the waning ice cap, the hiss of methane bubbles rising from the shallows, and the hushed whispers of temperature and salinity in the dark waters below.
Glaciologists and marine hydrologists know this, and so do a significant number of climate scientists. It’s the would-be mass movement around climate change that has done its level best to pretend that the only irreversible tipping points are still somewhere in the future. They’re not alone in that; for a good many decades now, the entire environmental movement has been stuck in a broken-record rut, saying over and over again that we still have five years to fix the biosphere. Those of my readers who doubt this might want to pick up the twenty-year and thirty-year updates to The Limits to Growth and compare what they have to say about how long the world has to stave off catastrophe.
That is to say, the environmental movement these days has become a prisoner of the same delusion of human omnipotence that shapes so much of contemporary culture.
That’s the context in which Charles Mann’s denunciation of the peak oil heresy needs to be taken. To be acceptable in today’s mainstream environmental scene, a cause has to be stated in terms that feed the fantasy just named. Climate change is a perfect fit, since it starts from an affirmation of human power—“Look at us! We’re so almighty that we can wreck the climate of the whole planet!” —and goes on to insist that all we have to do is turn our limitless might to fixing the climate instead. The campaigns to save this or that species of big cute animal draw their force from the same emotions—“We’re so powerful that we can wipe out the elephants, but let’s keep some around for our own greater glory!” Here again, though, once some bit of ecological damagecan no longer be fixed, everyone finds something else to talk about, because that data point doesn’t feed the same fantasy.
Peak oil is unacceptable to the environmental establishment, in turn, because there’s no way to spin it as a story of human omnipotence. If you understand what the peak oil narrative is saying, you realize that the power we human beings currently claim to have isn’t actually ours; we simply stole the carbon the planet had stashed in its underground cookie jar and used it to go on a three-century-long joyride, which is almost over. The “narrative of scarcity” Mann denounced so heatedly is, after all, the simple reality of life on a finite planet. We had the leisure to pretend otherwise for a very brief interval, and now that interval is coming to an end. There’s no melodrama in that, no opportunity for striking grand poses on which our own admiring gaze can rest, just the awkward reality of coming to terms with the fact that we’ve made many stupid decisions and now have to deal with the consequences thereof.
This is why the one alternative to saving the world that everyone in the mainstream environmental scene is willing to talk about is the prospect of imminent universal dieoff. Near-term human extinction, the apocalypse du jour ever since December 21, 2012 passed by without incident, takes its popularity from the same fantasy of omnipotence—if we human beings are the biggest and baddest thing in the cosmos, after all, what’s the ultimate display of our power? Why, destroying ourselves, of course!
There’s a bubbling cauldron of unspoken motives behind the widespread popularity of this delusion of omnipotence, but I suspect that a large part of it comes from an unsuspected source. The generations that came of age after the Second World War faced, from their earliest days, a profoundly unsettling experience that very few of their elders ever had, and then usually in adulthood. In place of comfortable religious narratives that placed the origin of the universe a short time in the past, and its end an even shorter time in the future, they grew up with what paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould usefully termed “deep time”—the vision of a past and a future on time scales the human mind has never evolved the capacity to grasp, in which all of human history is less than an eyeblink, and you and I, dear reader, no matter what we do, won’t even merit the smallest of footnotes in the story of life on this planet.
Growing up on the heels of the baby boom, I experienced all this myself. I read the Life Nature Library about as soon as I could read anything at all; by age six or so I had my favorite dinosaurs, and a little later on succumbed to the beauty of trilobites and the vast slow dances of geology. By some blend of dumb luck and happenstance, though, I missed out on the sense of entitlement so pervasive among those born when the United States was at the zenith of its prosperity and power. The gospel of “you can have whatever you desire” that Barbara Ehrenreich anatomized so pitilessly in her book Bright-Sided found no answering chord in my psyche, and so it never bothered me in the least to think that a hundred million years from now, some intelligent critter of a species not yet spawned might gaze in delight at my fossilized skull, and rub its mandibles together to produce some equivalent of “Ooh, look at that!”
I’m far from the only one these days who sees the unhuman vastness of nature as something to celebrate, rather than something to fear and, at least in imagination, to try to overcome through overblown fantasies of human importance. Still, it’s a minority view as yet, and to judge by the points made earlier in this essay, it seems underrepresented in the mainstream of today’s environmental movement. The fixation on narratives that assign the sole active role to humanity and a purely passive role to nature is, I’ve come to think, a reaction to the collision between two potent cultural forces in contemporary life—the widely promulgated fantasy of infinite entitlement, on the one hand, and on the other, the dawning recognition of our species’ really quite modest, and very sharply limited, place in the scheme of things.
The conflict between these factors is becoming increasingly hard to avoid, and drives increasingly erratic behaviors, as the years pass. The first and largest generation to follow the Second World War in the developed world is nearing the one limit that affects each of us most personally. Thus it’s probably not an accident that 2030—the currently fashionable date by which humans are all supposed to be extinct—is right around the date when the average baby boomer’s statistical lifespan will run out. To my mind, the attempt to avoid that face-first encounter with limits does a lot to explain why so many boomers bailed into evangelical Protestant fundamentalism in the 1980s, with its promise that Christ would show up any day now and spare them the necessity of dying. It explains equally well why the 2012 hysteria, which made similar claims, attracted so much wasted breath in its day—and why so few people these days are able to come to terms with the reality of scarcity, of limits, and of the end of the industrial age and all its wildly overblown fantasies of self-importance.
The friend of mine who was dying as I walked the Ocean City beach last weekend was born in 1949, in the midst of the baby boom, but somehow he managed to avoid those antics and the obsessions that drove them. As a Druid among other things—he was one of the very few people I’ve known well who received more initiations than I have—he understood that death is not the opposite of life but the completion of it. When he collapsed at work a few weeks ago and was rushed to the hospital, his friends and fellow initiates in the Puget Sound area took up a steady vigil at his bedside, and kept those of us out of the region informed. The appropriate ceremonies prepared him for his passing, and another set of ceremonies are helping the living cope with his departure.
A thousand years from now, in all probability, nobody will remember how Corby Ingold lived and died, any more than they will remember the 2015 annual sessions of the Maryland Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, or this blog, or its author. A thousand years from now, for that matter, fossil fuels will be a dim memory, and so will the Greenland ice cap, the Florida peninsula, and a great deal more. It’s just possible, though very unlikely, that human beings will be among those dim memories—we rank with cockroaches and rats among Nature’s supreme generalists, and like them are remarkably hard to exterminate. Whether or not human beings are there to witness it, though, waves like the ones that rolled onto the beach at Ocean City will be rolling over the sunken ruins of Ocean City hotels, just as they rolled above the mudflats where trilobites scurried six hundred million years ago, and as they will roll onto whatever shores rise up when the continents we now inhabit have long since vanished forever.
The sea is patient. It has outlived countless species and will outlive countless more, ours among them. Among the things it might be able to teach us, on the off chance that we’re willing to learn, is that the life of a species, like that of an individual, is completed by death, not erased by it, and that its value is measured by the beauty and wisdom it experiences and creates, not by the crasser measurements of brute force and brute endurance.