Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Decline and Fall of Hillary Clinton

The last couple of weeks in American politics have offered an interesting confirmation of some of the main themes I’ve discussed on this blog. For that matter, those weeks would have come as no surprise to one of the thinkers whose work has guided these essays since this blog started a decade ago, the philosopher of history Oswald Spengler. I can all too readily imagine the hard lines of Spengler’s face creasing in momentary amusement as he contemplates the temporarily divergent fates of those two candidates for the US presidency that, less than a year ago, nearly everyone insisted would be facing one another in the general election:   Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

Bush is in some ways the perfect poster child for the theme I have in mind just now. When he launched his campaign last year, it was a letter-perfect copy of the successful presidential campaigns of the last three decades. He lined up plenty of big-money sponsors; he assembled a team of ghostwriters, spin doctors, and door-to-door salesmen to run his campaign; he had a PR firm design a catchy logo; he practiced spouting the kind of empty rhetoric that sounds meaningful so long as you don’t think about it for two minutes; he took carefully calculated stands on a handful of hot-button topics, mouthed the conventional wisdom on every other issue, and set out to convince the voters that their interests would be harmed just a little bit less by putting him in the White House than by any of the alternatives.

That sort of content-free campaign is what got George Bush I, Bill Clinton, George Bush II, and Barack Obama onto the list of US presidents. What it got Jeb Bush, though, was a string of humiliating defeats. Some have suggested that his tearful exit from the race in the wake of the South Carolina primary was the act of a child who had been promised a nice shiny presidency by his daddy, and then found out that the mean voters wouldn’t give it to him. I think, though, that there was considerably more to it than that. I think that Bush had just realized, to his shock and horror, that the rules of the game had been changed on him without notice, and all those well-informed, well-connected people who had advised him on the route that would take him to the presidency had basically been smoking their shorts.

If anything, though, Hillary Clinton’s campaign offers an even clearer glimpse into the festering heart of the American political process. She did exactly the same things that Jeb did—it’s indicative that the two of them both splashed their first names across their equally banal campaign logos—and she also managed, as he never did, to get the apparatchiks of her party lined up solidly on her side before the campaigning season got under way. By the ordinary rules of US politics, she should have enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the primaries to the Democratic convention while Jeb Bush wrestled with his opponents, and then gone into the general election with plenty of money to spare, saturating the air waves with a deluge of advertisements designed to convince the American people that four years under her leadership would be ever so slightly less disastrous for them than four years under Bush.

This time, though, the rules have changed. Clinton is facing a spirited challenge from party outsider Bernie Sanders, and though she’ll still probably get the nomination—it’s a source of wry amusement that just now, the Democratic Party’s nominating procedure is significantly less democratic than that of the GOP—it’s pretty clear at this point that she’s not going to get it without a fight. Once she does, in turn, instead of facing another bland insider in a tepid race to the center that can easily be clinched by an ad blitz or two, she’ll be up against Donald Trump, whose popularity soars with every petulant denunciation the pundits of the privileged classes fling at him, whose take-no-prisoners style of bare-knuckle campaigning is exactly the sort of challenge that neither Clinton nor her lumbering campaign staff have shown the least ability to handle, and who is prepared to offer the voters something other than the very slightly lesser of two evils.

Now of course Clinton has made things considerably worse for herself by the way she’s approached the  campaign.  She’s got a whopping case of that weird mental blind spot I labeled, in a post that appeared here last year, “the delusion of control”—the notion, as pervasive as it is preposterous, that when a member of America’s privileged classes does something, the rest of the cosmos is obliged to respond to that action in a wholly passive, wholly mechanical manner. For a world-class example, watch the way Clinton’s handlers simply look blank each time they find out that most of the American people loathe and distrust their candidate, and try repeatedly to “reintroduce” her, as though they think they can just hit a reset button on the campaign machinery and start all over again.

For that matter, Clinton’s own attitude during the campaign so far reminds me of nothing so much as  what happens when someone puts money into a defective vending machine. She’s fed the thing her quarters and pushed the right button, but the desired product hasn’t dropped to the bottom where she can get it.  Now she’s jabbing the button over and over again, and in due time she’ll be pounding her fists on the thing and screaming at it because it won’t give her what she’s paid for.  I honestly don’t think she’s ever, even for a moment, considered the possibility that the voting public isn’t simply a passive, mechanical mass that will spit up a presidency for her if she just manipulates in in the right way.  I doubt it has entered her darkest dream that the American people might just up and decide to cast their votes to further their own interests rather than hers.

That analysis seems plausible to me for a variety of reasons, but high among them is the way that Clinton’s supporters among her own class-and-gender subcategory have demanded that all American women back the Clinton campaign. I’m thinking here particularly of Madeleine Albright, who made the news a little while back with a irate public statement insisting that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”  That’s a common trope among a certain well-paid class of Second Wave feminists. It’s become controversial, and for good reason, among a great many other feminists, particularly in the partly overlapping sets of women of color and women in the wage class. Listen to them, and you’ll hear at some length how they feel about being expected to help rich and influential women like Madeleine Albright pursue their goals, when they know perfectly well the favor won’t be returned in any way that matters.

What, after all, does a Clinton presidency offer the majority of American women, other than whatever vicarious thrill they might get from having a president with a vagina? The economic policies Clinton espouses—the current bipartisan consensus, from which she shows no signs of veering in the slightest—have already brought poverty and misery to millions of American women who don’t happen to share her privileged background and more than ample income.  Her tenure as Secretary of State was marked by exactly the sort of hamfisted interventions in other people’s countries to which Democrats, once upon a time, used to object:  interventions, please note, that have already been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, and may yet—especially if Clinton takes the same attitudes with her into the White House—treat a good many American women to the experience of watching their kids come home in body bags from yet another brutal and pointless Mideast war.

The reaction to Albright’s public tantrum is in many ways as instructive as the tantrum itself. A great many American women simply aren’t buying it. More generally, no matter how furiously Clinton and her flacks hammer on the buttons of the vending machine, trying to elicit the mechanical response they think they ought to be able to expect, the voters aren’t falling into line. Trump and Sanders, each in his own way, have shown too many people that it’s possible to hope for something other than an intolerable state of business as usual.  In the wake of their candidacies, a great many voters have decided that they’re no longer willing to vote for the lesser of two evils.

That’s a point of some importance.  To my mind, it’s far from accidental that for the last few decades, every presidential election here in the US has been enlivened by bumper stickers calling on voters to support the presidential ambitions of Cthulhu, the tentacled primeval horror out of H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic dread. I’m sorry to say that the Elder God’s campaign faces a serious constitutional challenge, as he was spawned on the world of Vhoorl in the twenty-third nebula and currently resides in the drowned corpse-city of R’lyeh, and as far as I know neither of these are US territory. Still, his bid for the White House has gotten further than most other imaginary candidacies, and I’ve long thought that the secret behind that success is Cthulhu’s campaign slogan: “Why settle for the lesser evil?”

The reason that this slogan reliably elicits laughter, in turn, is that the entire rhetoric of presidential politics in the United States for decades now has fixated on the claim that one party’s pet stooge won’t do anything quite as appalling as the other side’s will, even though they all support the same policies and are bought and sold by the same corrupt interests. Over and over again, we’ve been told that we have to vote for whatever candidate this or that party has retched up, because otherwise the other side will get to nominate a Supreme Court justice or two, or get us into another war, or do something else bad.  Any suggestion that a candidate might be expected to do something positive—that he or she might, for example, reject the bipartisan policies that have crashed the standard of living for most Americans, consigned the nation’s infrastructure to malign neglect, and pursued gargantuan corporate welfare programs, such as the worthless F-35 fighter, at the expense of anything more useful or necessary—is dismissed out of hand as “unrealistic.”

What the insurgent candidacies of Trump and Sanders show conclusively, in turn, is that the lesser-evil rhetoric and its fixation on “realistic” politics have just passed their pull date. There are very good reasons for this. The pursuit of the lesser evil means that the best the American people are supposed to hope for is the continuation of the current state of things—that’s what you get, after all, if your only talking points fixate on stopping things from getting worse—and for most Americans today, the current state of things is unbearable. Cratering wages and soaring rents, a legal environment that increasingly denies even basic rights to everybody but corporations and the rich, an economy rigged to load ever-increasing costs on working people while funneling all the benefits to those who already have too much—well, you can fill in the list as well as I can. If you don’t happen to belong to the privileged classes, life in today’s America is rapidly becoming intolerable, and the “realistic” politics that both parties have pursued with equal enthusiasm for decades are directly responsible for making it intolerable.

Thus the reason that a large and growing number of ordinary working Americans are refusing to accept another rehash of the status quo this time around is that their backs are to the wall. That’s a situation that comes up reliably at a certain point in the history of every society, and it’s a source of wry amusement to me that Oswald Spengler predicted the situation currently facing the United States—and, mutatis mutandis, the rest of the industrialized world as well.

Spengler’s historical analysis covers a vast amount of territory, but the point at issue here appears late in the second volume of The Decline of the West, where he sketches out the immediate future of what we call Western industrial civilization and he named the Faustian Culture. His theme was the way that democracies die.  He argued that democracy suffers from a lethal vulnerability, which is that it has no meaningful defenses against the influence of money.  Since most citizens are more interested in their own personal, short-term advantage than they are in the long-term destiny of their nation, democracy turns into a polite fiction for plutocracy just as soon as the rich figure out how to buy votes, a lesson that rarely takes them long to learn.

The problem with plutocracy, in turn, is that it embodies the same fixation on short-term personal advantage that gives it its entry to power, since the only goals that guide the rich in their increasingly kleptocratic rule are immediate personal wealth and gratification. Despite the ravings of economists, furthermore, it simply isn’t true that what benefits the very rich automatically benefits the rest of society as well; quite the contrary, in the blind obsession with personal gain that drives the plutocratic system, the plutocrats generally lose track of the hard fact that too much profiteering can run the entire system into the ground  A democracy in its terminal years thus devolves into a broken society from which only the narrowing circle of the privileged rich derive any tangible benefit. In due time, those excluded from that circle look elsewhere for leadership.

The result is what Spengler calls Caesarism: the rise of charismatic leaders who discover that they can seize power by challenging the plutocrats, addressing the excluded majority, and offering the latter some hope that their lot will be improved. Now and then, the leaders who figure this out come from within the plutocracy itself; Julius Caesar, who contributed his family name to Spengler’s term, was a very rich man from an old-money Senatorial family, and he’s far from the only example. In 1918, Spengler predicted that the first wave of Caesarism in the Western world was about to hit, that it would be defeated by the plutocrats, and that other waves would follow. He was dead right on the first two counts, and the current election suggests that the third prediction will turn out just as accurate.

To a very real extent, Hillary Clinton’s faltering presidential campaign is a perfect microcosm of what Spengler was talking about in his cold analysis of democracy in extremis. Her entire platform presupposes that the only policies the United States can follow are those that have been welded in place since the turn of the millennium: more government largesse for corporations and the rich, more austerity for everyone else, more malign neglect for the national infrastructure and the environment, more wars in the Middle East, and more of the fantastically stupid policy of confrontation—there really is no gentler way to describe it—that has succeeded, against all odds, in uniting Russia, China, Iran, and an assortment of smaller nations against the United States, by convincing their leaders that they have nothing to gain from a US-centric world order and nothing to lose by challenging it.

Those policies have not brought any of the good things their promoters insisted that they were going to bring. Another four years of the same policies aren’t going to change that fact. Every American voter knows these things, and so does Hillary Clinton, which is why her campaign focuses so precisely on everything but the issues that actually concern the majority of American voters today. That’s what lends a savage irony to Madeleine Albright’s brittle demand that American women support Clinton even though, for all practical purposes, she’s offering them very little more than they got from George W. Bush.  Albright’s is the classic voice of a senile plutocracy on its way down, demanding a loyalty from others that it has done precisely nothing to earn.

I suspect we’ll see plenty of the same sort of irony as the current election season lurches toward its end. No doubt Clinton and her flacks will keep on trying to reintroduce her to voters who already know her quite well enough, thank you; no doubt we’ll hear all sorts of encomiums about what a nice person she is—as though that matters one jot to people who know that four more years of the policies she supports may well land them out of a job and out on the street. For that matter, facile claims that everything is fine, the economy is booming, and the American people are happier than they’ve been in decades are already appearing in the mass media. No doubt things look that way if you live in a bubble of privilege, and take good care never to step outside it and see how the other 80% live; for that matter, it’s true that if you take the obscene gains raked in by the privileged few and average them out across the entire population, that looks like economic betterment—but those gains are not being shared by the entire population, and the entire population knows this.

For the connoisseurs of historical irony, there will doubtless be plenty of entertainment to be had in watching the Clinton campaign as it tries one tactic after another to get that vending machine to cough up the prize Clinton so obviously and desperately craves. None of those veerings matter in any broader sense, because Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have already demonstrated that rejecting the consensus of America’s dominant minority is a ticket to electoral success. It’s possible—indeed, I think it’s likely—that Clinton will manage to squeeze past Sanders and get the Democratic nomination by fair means or foul; it’s considerably less likely that she’ll be able to overcome Trump in the general election; but even if she does, others will follow where Trump and Sanders lead, and sooner or later one of them will triumph.

The more likely option just now, I think, is that the Clinton campaign will meet a crushing defeat at Trump’s hands, and the decline and fall of Hillary Clinton will also mark the end of the failed consensus that has dominated American politics for decades. That fact alone doesn’t guarantee improvement; no law requires that whatever policies replace the conventional wisdom must be better. Nonetheless, things will change, and it’s at least possible that some of the changes might remove at least a few of the worst features of the bleak era now stumbling to its end around us.

Even archdruids need the occasional break, and it’s been getting on for two years since I last took one. This will therefore be the last post on this blog until April 6. See you then!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Retrotopia: Back To What Worked

This is the fifteenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator visits another school, catches the flu, and has his first encounter with the Lakeland Republic’s health care system...

I made some phone calls the next morning and got my schedule sorted out for the next few days. Now that President Meeker had gotten things sorted out with the Restos, I had a lot of things to discuss with the Lakeland government, and I knew they’d want to know as much as possible about what was going to change following the election back home.

By quarter to nine I was climbing the marble stairs in front of the Capitol, passing a midsized crowd of wide-eyed schoolchildren on a field trip. The morning went into detailed discussions with government officials—Melanie Berger from Meeker’s staff, Stuart Macallan from the State Department, and Jaya Patel from the Department of Commerce—about the potential reset in relations between their country and mine now that Barfield and the Dem-Reps were out on their collective ear. They were frankly better prepared for the discussion than I was; I’d taken the precaution of printing out the position papers from Montrose’s transition team before I got on the train in Pittsburgh, and reviewed them the night before, but it was pretty obvious that the Lakelanders weren’t used to looking things up moment by moment on a veepad and I was.

We had lunch downstairs in the congressional dining room, a big pleasant space with tall windows letting in the autumn sunlight, and then it was up to Meeker’s office and a long afternoon talking with the President. I have no idea to this day if Isaiah Meeker plays poker, but if he does, I pity the other players; the skill with which he tried to lure me into saying more than I should, while gracefully evading any question of mine he didn’t want to answer, was really quite impressive. I’m pretty sure that he ended up with a clearer idea of the incoming administration’s foreign-policy plans than anyone outside of Ellen Montrose’s inner circle was entitled to have, though in exchange I think I got a good sense of how his administration was likely to respond to some of the impending changes in inter-American relations—including some I was pretty sure he didn’t know about yet.

Dinner was at a really pleasant French place two blocks from the Capitol: Berger, Patel, her husband Ramaraj, and me—Macallan had to attend some kind of event at the Texan embassy. The conversation stayed deftly on the edge between too little politics to be interesting and too much to be safe. When I finally got back to my hotel room that night, I sat at the desk writing down my impressions until well past midnight, and then fell into bed.

The next morning I’d scheduled a visit to the Capitol Atheist Assembly’s school, and showed up at nine AM promptly just as classes were getting under way. The drill was nearly the same as at the school in Hicksville; I went to the office and signed in with the secretary, they found someone to show me around, and I sat in the back of the room and watched a couple of classes. I’d wanted to see their math and science classes, and I got my wish, but what I saw wasn’t anything like the math and science I was used to. The kids weren’t learning how to run programs to solve mathematical problems, or watching computer simulations of experiments—no, they were actually solving the problems and doing the experiments themselves. I watched a room full of sixth-graders work their way through a geometrical proof, and a class of eighth-graders hard at work setting up some kind of complicated apparatus with mirrors and prisms that ran out to all four corners of the classroom.

“The Michaelson-Morley experiment,” the teacher explained to me as we stood on one side of the classroom and watched the students and a couple of teacher’s apprentices get everything lined up. He was an old guy with flyaway white hair and disconcertingly blue eyes.  “I don’t know if they teach that outside, but it’s one of the classic experiments in physics.”

“I don’t think I heard of it,” I admitted. “I’m curious why you have them repeat it, rather than just telling them how it came out.”

That got me the classic Lakeland you-don’t-get-it look. “We actually have them replicate a whole series of classic scientific experiments,” he said. “That way, they learn that science isn’t some kind of revelation handed down from on high—it’s a living, growing thing, and it lives and grows when people get their hands dirty running experiments, and replicating them.” He gestured at the hardware. “And by making mistakes. Michaelson-Morley’s a finicky one; the first time they do it, the kids almost always get a different result than Michaelson and Morley got, and once that happens they get to go back over what they did and figure out what happened.”

Right then he got called over by one of the apprentices to help sort out some detail of setting up the apparatus, and my guide and I watched for a few more minutes and then headed for another class. All in all, it was an interesting morning; one thing I noticed is that the kids were never just sitting there being bored and restless, the way they were in every school I’d ever seen back home. I wondered how much that had to do with the fact that the students here were actually doing something active in every class I saw, instead of sitting there staring at screens by the hour.

I left when the students went to lunch. While I’d been inside, a rainstorm had come rolling in off the lake, and though it wasn’t much more than five minutes before a streetcar came to the stop out front, I was pretty wet by the time I climbed on board. I had lunch at the hotel; by then the rain had stopped, and I dodged puddles up to the Capitol and then a block and a half past it, to the office building that housed the Lakeland Republic’s Department of Commerce. I spent all afternoon there with Jaya Patel and half a dozen other Commerce staffers, looking into possible trade deals and sorting out how those would be affected by their tax and tariff policies. It was a productive session but a tiring one, and then we headed off to an Indian place for dinner; by the time I got back to my hotel room I was feeling pretty run down.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that there was more going on than simple tiredness. I felt awful, and the face that confronted me in the mirror looked even worse. I sat down on the side of the hotel bed and tried to figure out what to do. Back home, I’d simply have canceled everything for a week, taken some over-the-counter meds, and waited it out.  You don’t go to a doctor or a hospital in the Atlantic Republic if you can possibly help it—a checkup plus lab work and a simple prescription will cost you the better part of a month’s income even after health insurance pays its cut, and you really don’t want to know how many people end up sick or dead every year because somebody screwed up a diagnosis, or because trade treaties won’t allow the government to pull medicines off the market even if they’re ineffective or worse. I’ve seen the numbers and they’re pretty grim.

Still, I wasn’t at home, and I couldn’t afford to spend the next week doing nothing. After a bit I went over to the packet I’d gotten on arrival, and paged through the paper on getting by in the Lakeland Republic. There was one short paragraph on medical emergencies and another on ordinary health care; this didn’t feel like an emergency, so I read the second one. It told me to call the concierge’s desk, and so as soon as I’d called Melissa Berger and cancelled the day’s meetings, that’s what I did.

“No problem, sir,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “I’ll call Dr. Hammond, find out how soon he can get here, and call you right back. It’ll be just a moment.”

About the time I’d begun to wonder how long “just a moment” was—it probably wasn’t more than five minutes, to be fair—the phone rang. “Mr. Carr? Dr. Hammond’s on his way. He’ll be up to see you in twenty minutes or so.”

Up to see me? I wondered about that. Something I’d read on the metanet once mentioned that a long time ago, doctors used to actually go to people’s homes—I think they called it “making house calls” or something like that. The idea sounded pretty far-fetched to me, but then plenty of things about the Lakeland Republic were pretty far-fetched by the standards I knew. Sure enough, right about twenty minutes after I’d gotten off the phone with the concierge, a crisp knock sounded on the door, and I went to open it.

Dr. Paul Hammond turned out to be a youngish African-American guy dressed like an ordinary Toledo businessman, with a big brown leather case in one hand. We did the usual, and then he sat me down, pulled over a chair, pulled a pen and a notebook out of the big leather case and started asking me questions about my health and the symptoms I’d noticed. After he’d finished with that, he got a thin glass thing that seemed to be some kind of thermometer in my mouth, checked my pulse, used some kind of rig with tubes that went from his ears to an odd-shaped disk to listen to my breathing, and then took the thermometer out, had me stick my tongue out and shone a flashlight down my throat.

“Pretty much what I expected, Mr. Carr,” he said then. “There’s a nasty little 24-hour flu going around, and I’m sorry to say you’ve got it. The good news is that you’ll be over it sometime tomorrow if you take it easy and let your body deal with it. You’ve got a mild fever, but that and the muscle aches are normal for this bug—all we have to do is keep any kind of secondary infection from getting going in your upper respiratory tract or your chest, and you’ll be fine.”

He reached into his case, pulled out a brown glass dropper bottle and what looked for all the world like a package of tea bags. “Twenty drops of this in water every two hours,” he said, indicating the bottle, “and one of these in hot water whenever you feel like it—that’s to treat the muscle aches.”

I picked up the package, gave it a dubious look. Yes, they were tea bags, full of what looked like bits of leaves that I guessed came from a bunch of different plants.

Hammond watched me with an amused look on his face. “The concierge tells me that you’re from outside,” he said. “So you were expecting pills, right, rather than plants.”

“Well, yes.”

“Care to guess where a lot of the ingredients in those pills come from?” 

I gave him a quizzical look.

“Plants. Aspirin comes from willow bark, menthol from mint, and so on—there’s a long list. And here’s the thing—some of these plants have been bred for thousands of years to have the right mix of active compounds to treat this or that health problem. By and large, the kind of pharmaceuticals you’re used to taking pull just one compound out of the mix and use that, because somebody or other decided that it was the ‘active ingredient.’” He shook his head. “I can get you some pills if you really want them, but the tincture and the infusion will actually do you more good.”

That seemed improbable to me, but I was feeling too out of sorts to argue. He wrote down some notes about what to eat, told me what symptoms to watch for, and handed me his card so I could call him if anything out of the ordinary happened. Then he told me he’d check on me the next morning, said goodbye, and headed out the door.

I put twenty drops of the stuff from the dropper bottle into half a glass of water from the tap. It tasted so bad that I filled the glass the rest of the way before choking it down. By then I was feeling really tired, so I crawled back into bed and proceeded to sleep like a stone until past noon. I called room service and got some food, along with hot water for the tea-ish stuff—I figured, what the heck, might as well give it a try. It had an aromatic smell I didn’t recognize at all, but it went down easily enough and it seemed to make my muscles ache less.

That’s basically the way I spent the rest of that day. By sunset, rather to my surprise, I was starting to feel noticeably better, and by morning I felt—not well, exactly, but the sort of weak-but-better feeling that tells you that you’re going to be over an illness pretty soon.

Dr. Hammond showed up again at nine-thirty sharp. He had someone else with him, a wiry kid of eighteen or so—Hammond introduced him as his apprentice Larry Soames. “So how are we feeling?” he asked, as he settled on the same chair he’d used the morning before.

“A lot better,” I admitted. I fielded his questions and then got my temperature, pulse, and so on taken again, while the kid watched and listened and took notes in a little black notebook.

“Excellent,” Hammond said finally. “You ought to take the rest of today off, too, but if you do that you should be back on your feet again tomorrow.”

“Fair enough,” I said, “and thank you. Now how much do I owe you?”

“You don’t,” he said, with a broad smile. “I gather nobody’s told you how we do health care here.” When I shook my head:  “It’s pretty simple, really. Doctors like me—general practitioners—contract with businesses, churches, or citizen’s groups to provide basic health care.  That used to be common all over the old United States a century and a half ago.  My contract’s with the hotel; I get a flat monthly salary from them, and in return I provide all the primary health care for the employees and the guests.”

“What if somebody gets something a general practitioner can’t treat?”

“Well, of course, then I refer them to a specialist, and people have health insurance to cover that—but that’s not really that common, all things considered.”

That surprised me.  Back home, if you want to risk going to a doctor, you pretty much have to go to a specialist in whatever’s the matter, and if more than one part of your body is involved you’d better hope the specialists you get are willing to talk to each other or you’re going to land in a world of hurt.

“You don’t have a lot of general practitioners back home, I imagine,” he said then.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met one,” I admitted.

“Well, there you are. Here, probably ninety per cent of the physicians are GPs, and if you want to get into med school and become a specialist you pretty much have to go through an apprenticeship and then work as a GP for at least a few years first.  That way you remember that your job’s to treat patients, and not just a heart or an endocrine system or what have you.”

“Hold it,” I said. “You don’t go to med school to become a GP?”

“Not usually, no.” With another broad smile: “Back in the old Union, the universities got really good at inserting themselves into just about every job category you can think of as a job requirement. It was a big moneymaker for the academic industry but it didn’t work very well for anybody else—you’d go to college and learn a bunch of things dreamed up by people who didn’t actually work in the field, and then you’d graduate and have to unlearn most of it once you were on the job. We ditched all that after Partition; outside of a very few fields, most of them scholarly, it’s pretty much all apprenticeship.”

He nodded at Larry. “Six years from now, when he’s done with his apprenticeship, he’ll have years of hands-on experience to go with what he’s learning from the books, and once he passes his board exams he’ll be ready to start treating patients on his own right away. That’s the way it used to be done, you know—by apprenticeship, followed by state board exams. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects, all the skilled professions used to be that way, and it worked better, so we went back to it.”

He got up. “But that’s neither here nor there. Take it easy for the rest of the day, and if you feel worse—or if you get any of the symptoms I mentioned—give me a call right away. Okay? Excellent. Well, Mr. Carr, have a great day.”

They left, and I lay back down and eventually dozed off again.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Renewables: The Next Fracking?

I'd meant this week’s Archdruid Report post to return to Retrotopia, my quirky narrative exploration of ways in which going backward might actually be a step forward, and next week’s post to turn a critical eye on a common but dysfunctional habit of thinking that explains an astonishing number of the avoidable disasters of contemporary life, from anthropogenic climate change all the way to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Still, those entertaining topics will have to wait, because something else requires a bit of immediate attention. In my new year’s predictions a little over a month ago, as my regular readers will recall, I suggested that photovoltaic solar energy would be the focus of the next big energy bubble. The first signs of that process have now begun to surface in a big way, and the sign I have in mind—the same marker that provided the first warning of previous energy bubbles—is a shift in the rhetoric surrounding renewable energy sources.

Broadly speaking, there are two groups of people who talk about renewable energy these days. The first group consists of those people who believe that of course sun and wind can replace fossil fuels and enable modern industrial society to keep on going into the far future. The second group consists of people who actually live with renewable energy on a daily basis. It’s been my repeated experience for years now that people belong to one of these groups or the other, but not to both.

As a general rule, in fact, the less direct experience a given person has living with solar and wind power, the more likely that person is to buy into the sort of green cornucopianism that insists that sun, wind, and other renewable resources can provide everyone on the planet with a middle class American lifestyle. Conversely, those people who have the most direct knowledge of the strengths and limitations of renewable energy—those, for example, who live in homes powered by sunlight and wind, without a fossil fuel-powered grid to cover up the intermittency problems—generally have no time for the claims of green cornucopianism, and are the first to point out that relying on renewable energy means giving up a great many extravagant habits that most people in today’s industrial societies consider normal.

Debates between members of these two groups have enlivened quite a few comment pages here on The Archdruid Report. Of late, though—more specifically, since the COP-21 summit last December came out with yet another round of toothless posturing masquerading as a climate agreement—the language used by the first of the two groups has taken on a new and unsettling tone.

Climate activist Naomi Oreskes helped launch that new tone with a diatribe in the mass media insisting that questioning whether renewable energy sources can power industrial society amounts to “a new form of climate denialism.” The same sort of rhetoric has begun to percolate all through the greenward end of things: an increasingly angry insistence that renewable energy sources are by definition the planet’s only hope, that of course the necessary buildout can be accomplished fast enough and on a large enough scale to matter, and that no one ought to be allowed to question these articles of faith.

There are plenty of points worth making about what this sort of rhetoric implies about the current state of the green movement, and I’ll get to some of those  shortly, but the issue that comes first to mind—typically enough for this blog—is a historical one: we’ve been here before.

When this blog first got going, back in 2006, the energy resource that was sure to save industrial civilization from the consequences of its own bad decisions was biofuels. Those of my readers who were paying attention to the peak oil scene in those days will remember the grandiose and constantly reiterated pronouncements about the oceans of ethanol from American corn and the torrents of biodiesel from algae that were going to sweep away the petroleum age and replace fossil fuels with all the cheap, abundant, carbon-neutral liquid fuel anyone could want. Those who raised annoying questions—and yes, I was one of them—got reactions that swung across a narrow spectrum from patronizing putdowns to furious denunciation.

As it turned out, of course, the critics were right and the people who insisted that biofuels were going to replace petroleum and other fossil fuels were dead wrong. There were at least two problems, and both of them could have been identified—and in fact were identified—well in advance, by that minority who were willing to take a close look at the underlying data.

The first problem was that the numbers simply didn’t work out. It so happens, for example, that if you grow corn using standard American agricultural methods, and convert that corn into ethanol using state of the art industrial fermenters and the like, the amount of energy you have to put into that whole process is more than you get by burning the resulting ethanol. Equally, it so happens that if you were to put every square inch of arable farmland in the world into biofuel crops, leaving none for such trivial uses as feeding the seven billion human beings on this planet, you still wouldn’t get enough biofuel to replace the world’s annual consumption of transportation fuels. Neither of these points were hard to figure out, and the second one was well known in the appropriate tech scene of the 1970s—you’ll find it, for example, in the pages of William Catton’s must-read book Overshoot—but somehow the proponents of ethanol and biodiesel missed it.

The second problem was a little more complex, but not enough so to make it impossible to figure out in advance. This was that the process of biofuel production and consumption had impacts of its own. Divert a significant fraction of the world’s food supply into the fuel tanks of people in a handful of rich countries—and of course this is what all that rhetoric about fueling the world amounted to in practice—and the resulting spikes in food prices had disastrous impacts across the Third World, triggering riots and quite a number of countries and outright revolutions in more than one.

Meanwhile rain forests in southeast Asia got clearcut so that palm oil plantations could supply the upper middle classes of Europe and America with supposedly sustainable biodiesel. It could have gotten much worse, except that the underlying economics were so bad that not that many years into the biofuels boom, companies started going broke at such a rate that banks stopped lending money for biofuel projects; some of the most highly ballyhooed algal biodiesel projects turned out to be, in effect, pond scum ponzi schemes; and except for those enterprises that managed to get themselves a cozy spot as taxpayer-supported subsidy dumpsters, the biofuel boom went away.

It was promptly replaced by another energy resource that was sure to save industrial civilization. Yes, that would be hydrofracturing of oil- and gas-bearing shales, or to give it its popular moniker, fracking. For quite a while there, you couldn’t click through to an energy-related website without being assailed with any number of grandiose diatribes glorifying fracking as a revolutionary new technology that, once it was applied to vast, newly discovered shale fields all over North America, was going to usher in a new era of US energy independence. Remember the phrase “Saudi America”? I certainly do.

Here again, there were two little problems with these claims, and the first was that once again the numbers didn’t work out. Fracking wasn’t a new technological breakthrough—it’s been used on oil fields since the 1940s—and the “newly discovered” oil fields in North Dakota and elsewhere were nothing of the kind; they were found decades ago and the amount of oil in them, which was well known to petroleum geologists, did not justify the wildly overinflated claims made for them. There were plenty of other difficulties with the so-called “fracking revolution,” including the same net energy issue that ultimately doomed the “biodiesel revolution,” but we can leave those for now, and go on to the second little problem with fracking. 

This was the awkward fact that the fracking industry, like the biodiesel industry, had impacts of its own that weren’t limited to the torrents of new energy it was supposed to provide. All across the more heavily fracked parts of the United States, homeowners discovered that their tap water was so full of methane that they could ignite it with a match, while some had to deal with the rather more troubling consequences of earthquake swarms and miles-long trains of fracked fuels rolling across America’s poorly maintained railroad network. Then there was the methane leakage into the atmosphere—I don’t know that anybody’s been able to quantify that, but I suspect it’s had more than a little to do with the abrupt spike in global temperatures and extreme weather events over the last decade.

Things might have gotten much worse, except here again the underlying economics of fracking were so bad that not that many years into the fracking boom, companies have started going broke at such a rate that banks are cutting back sharply on lending for fracking projects. As I write this, rumors are flying in the petroleum industry that Chesapeake Petroleum, the biggest of the early players in the US fracking scene, is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy, and quite a few very large banks that lent recklessly to prop up the fracking boom are loudly proclaiming that everything is just fine while their stock values plunge in panic selling and the rates other banks charge them for overnight loans spike upwards.

Unless some enterprising fracking promoter figures out how to elbow his way to the government feed trough, it’s pretty much a given that fracking will shortly turn back into what it was before the current boom: one of several humdrum technologies used to scrape a little extra oil out from mostly depleted oil fields. That, in turn, leaves the field clear for the next overblown “energy revolution” to be rolled out—and my working ghess is that the focus of this upcoming round of energy hype will be renewable energy resources: specifically, attempts to power the electrical grid with sun and wind. 

In a way, that’s convenient, because we don’t have to wonder whether the two little problems with biofuels and fracking also apply to this application of solar and wind power. That’s already been settled; the research was done quite a while ago, and the answer is yes.

To begin with, the numbers are just as problematic for solar and wind power as they were for biofuels and fracking. Examples abound: real world experience with large-scale solar electrical generation systems, for example, show dismal net energy returns; the calculations of how much energy can be extracted from wind that have been used to prop up windpower are up to two orders of magnitude too high; more generally, those researchers who have taken the time to crunch the numbers—I’m thinking here especially, though not only, of Tom Murphy’s excellent site Do The Math—have shown over and over again that for reasons rooted in the hardest of hard physics, renewable energy as a source of grid power can’t live up to the sweeping promises made on its behalf.

Equally, renewables are by no means as environmentally benign as their more enthusiastic promoters claim. It’s true that they don’t dump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as burning fossil fuels do—and my more perceptive readers may already have noted, by the way, the extent to which talk about the very broad range of environmental blowbacks from modern industrial technologies has been supplanted by a much narrower focus on greenhouse gas-induced anthropogenic global warming, as though this is the only issue that matters—but the technologies needed to turn sun and wind into grid electricity involve very large volumes of rare metals, solvents, plastics, and other industrial products that have substantial carbon footprints of their own.

And of course there are other problems of the same kind, some of which are already painfully clear. A number of those rare metals are sourced from open-pit mines in the Third World worked by slave labor; the manufacture of most solvents and plastics involves the generation of a great deal of toxic waste, most of which inevitably finds its way into the biosphere; wind turbines are already racking up an impressive death toll among birds and bats—well, I could go on. Nearly all of modern industrial society’s complex technologies are ecocidal to one fairly significant degree or another, and the fact that a few of them extract energy from sunlight or wind doesn’t keep them from having a galaxy of nasty indirect environmental costs.

Thus the approaching boom in renewable energy will inevitably bring with it a rising tide of ghastly news stories, as corners get cut and protections overwhelmed by whatever degree of massive buildout gets funded before the dismal economics of renewable energy finally take their inevitable toll. To judge by what’s happened in the past, I expect to see plenty of people who claim to be concerned about the environment angrily dismissing any suggestion that the renewable energy industry has anything to do with, say, soaring cancer rates around solar panel manufacturing plants, or whatever other form the inevitable ecological blowback takes. The all-or-nothing logic of George Orwell’s invented language Newspeak is astonishingly common these days: that which is good (because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels) can’t possibly be ungood (because it isn’t economically viable and also has environmental problems of its own), and to doubt the universal goodness of what’s doubleplusgood—why, that’s thoughtcrime...

Things might get very ugly indeed, all things considered, except that the underlying economics of renewable energy as a source of grid electricity aren’t noticeably better than those of fracking or corn ethanol. Six to ten years down the road, as a result, the bankruptcies and defaults will begin, banks will start backing away from the formerly booming renewables industry, and the whole thing will come crashing down, the way ethanol did and fracking is doing right now. That will clear the way, in turn, for whatever the next energy boom will be—my guess is that it’ll be nuclear power, though that’s such a spectacular money-loser that any future attempt to slap shock paddles on the comatose body of the nuclear power industry may not get far.

It probably needs to be said at this point that one blog post by an archdruid isn’t going to do anything to derail the trajectory just sketched out. Ten thousand blog posts by Gaia herself, cosigned by the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Captain Planet and the Planeteers probably wouldn’t do the trick either. I confidently expect this post to be denounced furiously straight across the green blogosphere over the next couple of weeks, and at intervals thereafter; a few years from now, when dozens of hot new renewable-energy startups are sucking up million-dollar investments from venture capitalists and planning their initial IPOs, such few references as this and similar posts field will be dripping with patronizing contempt; then, when reality sets in, the defaults begin and the banks start backing away, nobody will want to talk about this essay at all.

It probably also needs to be pointed out that I’m actually very much in favor of renewable energy technologies, and have discussed their importance repeatedly on this blog. The question I’ve been trying to raise, here and elsewhere, isn’t whether or not sun and wind are useful power sources; the question is whether it’s possible to power industrial civilization with them, and the answer is no.

That doesn’t mean, in turn, that we’ll just keep powering industrial civilization with fossil fuels, or nuclear power, or what have you. Fossil fuels are running short—as oilmen like to say, depletion never sleeps—and nuclear power is a hopelessly uneconomical white-elephant technology that has never been viable anywhere in the world without massive ongoing government subsidies. Other options? They’ve all been tried, and they don’t work either.

The point that nearly everyone in the debate is trying to evade is that the collection of extravagant energy-wasting habits that pass for a normal middle class lifestyle these days is, in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. Those habits only became possible in the first place because our species broke into the planet’s supply of stored carbon and burnt through half a billion years of fossil sunlight in a wild three-century-long joyride. Now the needle on the gas gauge is moving inexorably toward that threatening letter E, and the joyride is over. It really is as simple as that.

Thus the conversation that needs to happen now isn’t about how to keep power flowing to the grid; it’s about how to reduce our energy consumption so that we can get by without grid power, using local microgrids and home-generated power to meet sharply reduced needs.We don’t need more energy; we need much, much less, and that implies in turn that we—meaning here especially the five per cent of our species who live within the borders of the United States, who use so disproportionately large a fraction of the planet’s energy and resources, and who produce a comparably huge fraction of the carbon dioxide that’s driving global warming—need to retool our lives and our lifestyles to get by with the sort of energy consumption that most other human beings consider normal.

Unfortunately that’s not a conversation that most people in America are willing to have these days. The point that’s being ignored here, though, is that if something’s unsustainable, sooner or later it will not be sustained. We can—each of us, individually—let go of the absurd extravagances of the industrial age deliberately, while there’s still time to do it with some measure of grace, or we can wait until they’re pried from our cold and stiffening fingers, but one way or another, we’re going to let go of them. The question is simply how many excuses for delay will be trotted out, and how many of the remaining opportunities for constructive change will go whistling down the wind, before that happens.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Whatever Happened to Peak Oil?

A few months from now, this blog will complete its tenth year of more-or-less-weekly publication. In words the Grateful Dead made famous, it’s been a long strange trip:  much longer and stranger than I had any reason to expect, certainly, when I typed up that first essay and got it posted on what was still, to me, the alien landscape of the blogosphere.

Over the years since that first tentative post, the conversations here have strayed into some remarkably odd territory:  the history of apocalyptic ideas, the nature of magic, the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, and a good deal more.  All through its vagaries, though, this blog’s central focus remains what it has been since shortly after its 2006 launch: the difficult but necessary task of facing up to the end of the  arrival of hard limits to growth, and the collapse of all those fantasies of perpetual progress that so many people today still use to keep themselves from thinking about the future ahead of us.

That said, my longtime readers may be wondering about the relative absence in recent posts of one of the core themes of this blog’s earlier days. Yes, that would be peak oil.

For those who’ve come to this blog recently, it maybe helpful to point out that this simple phrase refers to a complicated concatenation of ideas. First, despite claims made by rap musician BoB and the few other flat-earthers out there, I think most of us are aware that the Earth is a sphere a little more than 7900 miles across. That means, among many other things, that the Earth contains a finite amount of petroleum—and this in turn means that each barrel of petroleum that gets pumped out of the ground brings us closer to the point at which there’s no more left.

Second, getting oil out of the ground isn’t just a matter of sticking an iron straw into a hydrocarbon milkshake. There aren’t big underground lakes of oil; what you’ve got instead are cracks and pores in solid rock through which oil oozes slowly. Thus production from an oil well usually starts off slowly, rises to a steady flow, and then gradually dwindles away to a trickle as the available oil runs out. Oil fields follow much the same curve: the first successful wells bring up oil, many more wells get drilled, and then you drill new wells to make up for declining production in the old ones, until eventually there are no more places to drill and you’ve got a played-out field. The point at which you can’t drill enough new wells to make up for declining production from the old ones is the point at which the output from the field peaks and begins to decline.

Third, the same thing is true of what geologists call oil provinces—these are regions, such as the Marcellus shale, where you can find a bunch of oil in a bunch of fields that all have more or less the same geology. The reason’s the same: in an oil province, just as in an oil field, production increases at first as new wells go in, then peaks and begins to decline as you run out of enough places to drill new wells to make up for the depletion of the old ones. Apply the same logic to entire countries, and to the whole Earth, and it works just as well. The phrase “peak oil” is a label for the point at which drilling new wells can’t keep up with the depletion of existing wells worldwide, and the overall production of petroleum worldwide begins to decline.

That’s all very straightforward. Back in the late 1990s, when a handful of researchers started to pay attention to the widening gap between the rate at which oil was being pumped out of existing fields and the rate at which new fields were being discovered, that straightforward logic led most of them to equally linear conclusions.  At some point in the near future, they suggested, petroleum production would peak and then tip over into irreversible decline, petroleum prices would soar through the skylights, and a cascade of difficult consequences would promptly follow.

That latter point was by no means an arbitrary assumption. Petroleum then as now accounts for the largest share of global energy consumption, amounting to roughly forty per cent of all energy, including almost all the energy used in the transportation sector. Claims that petroleum products could easily be replaced by other energy sources ignored the hard reality that most other energy sources were already being used as fast as they could be extracted. Claims that imminent technological breakthroughs would surely keep any of these things from happening ignored the equally hard reality that most of those supposed breakthroughs had been tried repeatedly in the past and hadn’t worked.

All this had been discussed at great length back in the 1970s, when the United States hit its own all-time production peak and began skidding down the far side. The issue of peak oil got swept under the rug during the Reagan era and ignored by almost everyone thereafter; by the time the alarm was finally sounded again in the late 1990s, it was painfully clear that most of the time that would have been needed to get ready for peak oil had already been wasted. The result, according to most serious peak oil researchers at that time, would be a traumatic era of economic, political, and cultural turmoil in which a global civilization used to depending on oceans of cheap abundant crude oil got squeezed by steadily decreasing supplies at steadily soaring prices. That was the peak oil standard scenario.

Those of my readers who know their way around the apocalyptic end of the blogosophere, even if they weren’t paying attention at the time, will have no problem figuring out exactly what happened from that point on. Inevitably, the base case was turned into a launching pad for any number of lurid prophecies of imminent doom. The common contemporary habit of apocalypse machismo—“I can imagine a cataclysm more hideous and all-encompassing than you can!”—kicked into gear, and the resulting predictions interbred like hyperactive bunnies until the straightforward mathematics of peak oil were all but buried under a vast tottering heap of giddy fantasy.

Now of course none of those lavishly imagined catastrophes happened. That’s hardly surprising, as identical fantasies have been retailed on every imaginable provocation for decades now—swap out the modern details for their equivalents in previous eras, for that matter, and you can replace that word “decades” with “centuries” and still be correct. What did manage to surprise a good many people is that the standard scenario didn’t happen either. That’s not to say that everything was fine and dandy; as we’ll see, quite a bit of the economic, political, and social turmoil we’ve seen since 2005 or so was in fact driven by the impact of peak oil—but that impact didn’t follow the linear model that most peak oil writers expected it to follow

To understand what happened instead, it’s necessary to keep two things in mind that were usually forgotten back when the peak oil scene was at white heat, and still generally get forgotten today. The first is that while the supply of petroleum is ultimately controlled by geology, the demand for it is very powerfully influenced by market forces. Until 2004, petroleum production worldwide had been rising steadily for decades as new wells were brought on line fast enough to more than offset the depletion of existing fields. In that year, depletion began to catch up with drilling, and the price of oil began to rise steadily, and two things happened as a result.

The first of these was a massive flow of investment money into anything that could make a profit off higher oil prices. That included a great many boondoggles and quite a bit of outright fraud, but it also meant that plenty of oil wells that couldn’t make a profit when oil was $15 a barrel suddenly looked like paying propositions when the price rose to $55 a barrel. The lag time necessary to bring oil from new fields onto the market meant that the price of oil kept rising for a while, luring more investment money into the oil industry and generating a surge in future supply.

The problem was that the same spike in oil prices that brought all that new investment into the industry also had a potent impact on the consumption side of the equation. That impact was demand destruction, which can be neatly defined as the process by which those who can’t afford something stop buying it. Demand destruction also has a lag time—when the price of oil goes up, it takes a while for people to decide that higher prices are here to stay and change their lifestyles accordingly

The result was a classic demonstration of one of the ways that the “invisible hand” of the market is a good deal less benevolent than devout economists like to pretend. Take the same economic stimulus—the rising price of oil—and factor in lag times on its effects on both production and consumption, and you get a surge in new supply landing right about the time that demand starts dropping like a rock. That’s what happened in 2009, when the price of oil plunged from around $140 a barrel to around $30 a barrel in a matter of months. That’s also what happened in 2015, when prices lurched down by comparable figures for the same reason: surging supply and plunging demand hitting the oil market at the same time, after a long period when everyone assumed that the sky was the limit.

Could the bloggers and researchers in the pre-2009 peak oil scene have predicted all this in advance? Why, yes, and as a matter of fact a few of us did.  The problem was that we were very much in the minority. True believers in an imminent peak oil apocalypse denounced the analysis just outlined with quite some heat, to be sure, but I also quickly lost count of the number of earnest, intelligent, well-informed people who tried to convince me that I had to be wrong and the standard scenario had to be right.

The conventional wisdom in the peak oil scene missed something else, though, and that’s had a huge impact on this most recent boom-and-bust cycle. The convenient label “petroleum” actually covers many different kinds of hydrocarbon goo, and these are found in many different kinds of rock, scattered unevenly across the surface of the planet. Some kinds of goo are cheap to extract and refine, but many more aren’t. Since oil companies are in the business of making money, they quite sensibly started out by going after the stuff that was cheap to extract and  refine. When that ran out, they went after the stuff that was a little more expensive, and so on.

All this seems ordinary enough—after all, every other mineral resource has gone through the same curve; the low-grade taconite that goes into today’s iron smelters has a tiny fraction of the amount of iron per ton of ore that the lowest grades of commercially mined iron ore had a century ago. There’s a little problem here, though, which is that the difference in concentration between today’s taconite and yesterday’s better ores is made up by adding energy to the equation. It takes vastly more energy to make a steel I-beam today than it did in 1916, and most of that is a function of the fact that the lower the quality of ore, the more energy you have to invest in getting out each pound of iron from it.

This is also true of petroleum—but there’s a catch, because the point of extracting the petroleum in the first place is that you can get energy out of it. It’s at this point that we start talking about net energy.

Net energy is to energy what profit is to income. To get, let’s say, one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) of energy, you have to invest a certain amount of energy in the process of extracting and refining it, and the amount you have to invest varies dramatically depending on what kind of hydrocarbon goo we’re talking about. What oilmen call “light sweet crude”—that is, petroleum that’s relatively high in light fractions, and free of sulfur and other contaminants—from the sort of shallow wells that built the US oil industry has a net energy of anything up to 200 to 1: in other words, less than a quart out of each 42-gallon barrel of oil goes to paying off the energy cost of extraction, and the rest is pure profit.

As you slide down the grades of hydrocarbon goo, though, that pleasant equation gets replaced by figures considerably less genial. Your average barrel of oil from a conventional US oilfield today has a net energy around 30 to 1, meaning that just under a gallon and a half of the oil in each barrel goes to pay off the energy cost of extraction. That’s still good, but it’s nothing like as good.

The surge of new petroleum that hit the oil market just in time to help drive the current crash of oil prices, though, didn’t come from 30-to-1 conventional oil wells, for the simple reason that every oil province in North America capable of bringing in that kind of yield was prospected many decades ago and is producing oil at ful tilt right now if it wasn’t drained to the bare rock long ago. What produced the surge this time was a mix of tar sands and hydrofractured shales, which are a very, very long way down the goo curve.

Neither one of them, as it happens, actually yields petroleum. From tar sands, as the name suggests, you get tar, which can be cut with solvents and shipped to special refineries where, if you’re willing to spend the money, you can break them down into the same things you can get much more cheaply from conventional crude oil. From hydrofractured shales, you get mostly very light hydrocarbons, the sort of thing that’s better suited to filling disposable lighters than it is to fueling your car. Both of these still got lumped in with conventional petroleum in the official statistics, which made it much easier for the New York Times and other highbrow propaganda outlets to pretend at the top of their lungs that peak oil doesn’t matter—there’s a rant to this effect somewhere in the Times every couple of months, which may suggest a certain basic insecurity at work, but that’s a theme for another post.

The real difficulty with the goo you get from tar sands and hydrofractured shales is that you have to put a lot more energy into getting each BOE of energy out of the ground and into usable condition than you do with conventional crude oil. The exact figures are a matter of dispute, and factoring in every energy input is a fiendishly difficult process, but it’s certainly much less than 30 to 1—and credible estimates put the net energy of tar sands and hydrofractured shales well down into single digits.

Now ask yourself this: where is the energy that has to be put into the extraction process coming from?

The answer, of course, is that it’s coming out of the same global energy supply to which tar sands and hydrofractured shales are supposedly contributing.

That’s the other half of the picture, as we stumble across the unfamiliar landscape on the far side of peak oil. The jagged landscape of booms and busts will doubtless continue for some time—it would not surprise me at all if the busts kept on coming at something like the six-year interval separating the 2009 and 2015 debacles—and each cycle will hammer the global economy in an assortment of familiar and unfamiliar ways, spreading collateral damage far and wide. Meanwhile the net energy of oil production will slide unsteadily downhill as older resources are exhausted and newer ones, with much steeper energy costs for extraction and refining, have to be brought on line to replace them.

The decline in net energy won’t be visible in the places you’d expect, either. As long as the hard facts of geology make it physically possible to do so, large volumes of “petroleum,” in some sense of that increasingly flexible word, will continue to be produced and consumed. With each year that passes, though, a larger fraction of that output will have to cycle right back into the extraction and refining process, leaving less and less available for all other uses. Thus declining net energy promises to play out over time in the form of creeping dysfunction throughout the economic sphere, in the form of neglected and abandoned infrastructure, failing institutions, a rising tide of permanent joblessness and homelessness, all papered over with an increasingly brittle layer of propaganda spewed out with equal enthusiam from the partisans of every officially acceptable point of view. (If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you need to get out more.)

That’s not going to reverse itself, either, because the resources that would be needed to flood the world with cheap abundant energy again don’t exist any more. We, ahem, burned them all. Again, the Earth is a sphere a little more than 7900 miles across; it never held that much in the way of concentrated energy resources in the first place, and our species squandered everything in our reach in three centuries or so of wretched excess.  The cycles of contraction and dysfunction just outlined are part of the process by which that excess is going away, leaving us with, at most, roughly the same sort of access to energy and its products that our ancestors had before the Industrial Revolution.

We could have made that transition in a controlled and intelligent way, and we didn’t—but that doesn’t excuse us from having to make it anyway. It’s just that we’re being dragged kicking and screaming into the future by forces we chose to ignore but can’t evade. Peak oil is one of those forces; anthropogenic climate change, which has been discussed here extensively already, is another—and it’s another that has been bedeviled by the sort of overly linear thinking on the one hand, and apocalyptic fantasy-spinning on the other, that crippled the peak oil community’s capacity to anticipate the future.

In an upcoming post, I plan on talking about some of the broader lessons to be drawn from that failure—and in the process, I intend to deliver a good hard stomp to one of the habits of thought that did the most to land us in this mess.