Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Leap in the Dark

A few days from now, 2016 will have passed into the history books. I know a fair number of people who won’t mourn its departure, but it’s pretty much a given that the New Year celebrations here in the United States, at least, will demonstrate a marked shortage of enthusiasm for the arrival of 2017.

There’s good reason for that, and not just for the bedraggled supporters of Hillary Clinton’s failed and feckless presidential ambitions. None of the pressures that made 2016 a cratered landscape of failed hopes and realized nightmares have gone away. Indeed, many of them are accelerating, as the attempt to maintain a failed model of business as usual in the teeth of political, economic, and environmental realities piles blowback upon blowback onto the loading dock of the new year.

Before we get into that, though, I want to continue the annual Archdruid Report tradition and review the New Year’s predictions that I made at the beginning of 2016. Those of my readers who want to review the original post will find it here. Here’s the gist.

“Thus my core prediction for 2016 is that all the things that got worse in 2015 will keep on getting worse over the year to come. The ongoing depletion of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources will keep squeezing the global economy, as the real (i.e., nonfinancial) costs of resource extraction eat up more and more of the world’s total economic output, and this will drive drastic swings in the price of energy and commodities—currently those are still headed down, but they’ll soar again in a few years as demand destruction completes its work. The empty words in Paris a few weeks ago will do nothing to slow the rate at which greenhouse gases are dumped into the atmosphere, raising the economic and human cost of climate-related disasters above 2015’s ghastly totals—and once again, the hard fact that leaving carbon in the ground means giving up the lifestyles that depend on digging it up and burning it is not something that more than a few people will be willing to face.

“Meanwhile, the US economy will continue to sputter and stumble as politicians and financiers try to make up for ongoing declines in real (i.e., nonfinancial) wealth by manufacturing paper wealth at an even more preposterous pace than before, and frantic jerryrigging will keep the stock market from reflecting the actual, increasingly dismal state of the economy.  We’re already in a steep economic downturn, and it’s going to get worse over the year to come, but you won’t find out about that from the mainstream media, which will be full of the usual fact-free cheerleading; you’ll have to watch the rates at which the people you know are being laid off and businesses are shutting their doors instead.” 

It’s almost superfluous to point out that I called it. It’s been noted with much irritation by other bloggers in what’s left of the peak oil blogosphere that it takes no great talent to notice what’s going wrong, and point out that it’s just going to keep on heading the same direction. This I cheerfully admit—but it’s also relevant to note that this method produces accurate predictions. Meanwhile, the world-saving energy breakthroughs, global changes in consciousness, sudden total economic collapses, and other events that get predicted elsewhere year after weary year have been notable by their absence.

I quite understand why it’s still popular to predict these things: after all, they allow people to pretend that they can expect some future other than the one they’re making day after day by their own actions. Nonetheless, the old saying remains true—“if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten”—and I wonder how many of the people who spend each year daydreaming about the energy breakthroughs, changes in consciousness, economic collapses, et al, rather than coming to grips with the rising spiral of crises facing industrial civilization, really want to deal with the future that they’re storing up for themselves by indulging in this habit.

Let’s go on, though.  At the beginning of 2016, I also made four specific predictions, which I admitted at the time were long shots. One of those, specific prediction #3, was that the most likely outcome of the 2016 presidential election would be the inauguration of Donald Trump as President in January 2017. I don’t think I need to say much about that, as it’s already been discussed here at length.  The only thing I’d like to point out here is that much of the Democratic party seems to be fixated on finding someone or something to blame for the debacle, other than the stark incompetence of the Clinton campaign and the failure of Democrats generally to pay attention to anything outside the self-referential echo chambers of affluent liberal opinion. If they keep it up, it’s pretty much a given that Trump will win reelection in 2020.

The other three specific long-shot predictions didn’t pan out, at least not in the way that I anticipated, and it’s only fair—and may be helpful, as we head further into the unknown territory we call 2017—to talk about what didn’t happen, and why.

Specific prediction #1 was that the next tech bust would be under way by the end of 2016.  That’s happening, but not in the way I expected. Back in January I was looking at the maniacally overinflated stock prices of tech companies that have never made a cent in profit and have no meaningful plans to do so, and I expected a repeat of the “tech wreck” of 2000. The difficulty was simply I didn’t take into account the most important economic shift between 2000 and 2016—the de facto policy of negative interest rates being pursued by the Federal Reserve and certain other central banks.

That policy’s going to get a post of its own one of these days, because it marks the arrival of a basic transformation in economic realities that’s as incomprehensible to neoliberal economists as it will be challenging to most of the rest of us. The point I want to discuss here here, though, is a much simpler one. Whenever real interest rates are below zero, those elite borrowers who can get access to money on those terms are being paid to borrow.  Among many other things, this makes it a lot easier to stretch out the downward arc of a failing industry. Cheaper-than-free money is one of the main things that kept the fracking industry from crashing and burning from its own unprofitability once the price of oil plunged in 2013; there’s been a steady string of bankruptcies in the fracking industry and the production of oil from fracked wells has dropped steadily, but it wasn’t the crash many of us expected.

The same thing is happening, in equally slow motion, with the current tech bubble. Real estate prices in San Francisco and other tech hotspots are sliding, overpaid tech employees are being systematically replaced by underpaid foreign workers, the numbers are looking uglier by the week, but the sudden flight of investment money that made the “tech wreck” so colorful sixteen years ago isn’t happening, because tech firms can draw on oceans of relatively cheap funding to turn the sudden popping of the tech bubble into the slow hiss of escaping air. That doesn’t mean that the boom-and-bust cycle has been cancelled—far from it—but it does mean that shoveling bad money after good has just become a lot easier. Exactly how that will impact the economy is a very interesting question that nobody just now knows how to answer.

Let’s move on.  Specific prediction #2 was that the marketing of what would inevitably be called “the PV revolution” would get going in a big way in 2016. Those of my readers who’ve been watching the peak oil scene for more than a few years know that ever since the concept of peak oil clawed its way back out of its long exile in the wilderness of the modern imagination, one energy source after anobter has been trotted out as the reason du jour why the absurdly extravagant lifestyles of today’s privileged classes can roll unhindered into the future.  I figured, based on the way that people in the mainstream environmentalist movement were closing ranks around renewables, that photovoltaic solar energy would be the next beneficiary of that process, and would take off in a big way as the year proceeded.

That this didn’t happen is not the fault of the solar PV industry or its cheerleades in the green media. Naomi Oreskes’ strident insistence a while back that raising questions about the economic viability of renewable energy is just another form of climate denialism seems to have become the party line throughout the privileged end of the green left, and the industrialists are following suit. Elon Musk, whose entire industrial empire has been built on lavish federal subsidies, is back at the feed trough again, announcing a grandiose new plan to manufacture photovoltaic roof shingles; he’s far and away the most colorful of the would-be renewable-energy magnates, but others are elbowing their way toward the trough as well, seeking their own share of the spoils.

The difficulty here is twofold. First, the self-referential cluelessness of the Democratic party since the 2008 election has had the inevitable blowback—something like 1000 state and federal elective offices held by Democrats after that election are held by Republicans today—and the GOP’s traditional hostility toward renewable energy has put a lid on the increased subsidies that would have been needed to kick a solar PV feeding frenzy into the same kind of overdrive we’ve already seen with ethanol and wind. Solar photovoltaic power, like ethanol from corn, has a disastrously low energy return on energy invested—as Pedro Prieto and Charles Hall showed in their 2015 study of real-world data from Spain’s solar PV program, the EROEI on large-scale grid photovoltaic power works out in practice to less than 2.5—and so, like nuclear power, it’s only economically viable if it’s propped up by massive and continuing subsidies. Lacking those, the “PV revolution” is dead in the water.

The second point, though, is the more damaging.  The “recovery” after the 2008-2009 real estate crash was little more than an artifact of statistical manipulation, and even negative interest rates haven’t been able to get a heartbeat going in the economy’s prostrate body. As most economic measurements not subject to fiddling by the enthusiastic accountants of the federal government slide steadily downhill, the economic surplus needed to support any kind of renewables buildout at all is rapidly tricking away. Demand destruction is in the driver’s seat, and the one way of decreasing fossil fuel consumption that affluent environmentalists don’t want to talk about—conservation—is the only viable option just now.

Specific prediction #4 was that the Saudi regime in Arabia would collapse by the end of 2016. As I noted at the time, the replacement of the Saudi monarchy with some other form of government is for all practical purposes a done deal. Of the factors I cited then—the impending bankruptcy of a regime that survives only by buying off dissent with oil money, the military quagmires in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq that have the Saudi military and its foreign mercenaries bogged down inextricably, and the rest of it—none have gone away. Nor has the underlying cause, the ongoing depletion of the once-immense oil reserves that have propped up the Saudi state so far.

That said, as I noted back in January, it’s anyone’s guess what cascade of events will send the Saudi royal family fleeing to refuges overseas while mobs rampage through their abandoned palaces in Riyadh, and some combination of mid-level military officers and Muslim clerics piece together a provisional government in their absence. I thought that it was entirely possible that this would happen in 2016, and of course it didn’t. It’s possible at this point that the price of oil could rise fast enough to give the Saudi regime another lease on life, however brief. That said, the winds are changing across the Middle East; the Russian-Iranian alliance is in the ascendant, and the Saudis have very few options left. It will be interesting, in the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse, to see how long they survive.

So that’s where we stand, as 2016 stumbles down the ramp into time’s slaughterhouse and 2017 prepares to take its place in the ragged pastures of history. What can we expect in the year ahead?

To some extent, I’ve already answered that question—but only to some extent. Most of the factors that drove events in 2016 are still in place, still pressing in the same direction, and “more of the same” is a fair description of the consequences. Day after day, the remaining fossil fuel reserves of a finite planet are being drawn down to maintain the extravagant and unsustainable lifestyles of the industrial world’s more privileged inmates. Those remaining reserves are increasingly dirty, increasingly costly to extract and process, increasingly laden with a witch’s brew of social, economic, and environmental costs that nobody anywhere is willing to make the fossil fuel industry cover, and those costs don’t go away just because they’re being ignored—they pile up in society, the economy, and the biosphere, producing the rising tide of systemic dysfunction that plays so large and unmentioned a role in daily life today.

Thus we can expect still more social turmoil, more economic instability, and more environmental blowback in 2017. The ferocious populist backlash against the economic status quo that stunned the affluent in Britain and America with the Brexit vote and Trump’s presidential victory respectively, isn’t going away until and unless the valid grievances of the working classes get heard and addressed by political establishments around the industrial world; to judge by examples so far, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. At the same time, the mismatch between the lifestyles we can afford and the lifestyles that too many of us want to preserve remains immense, and until that changes, the global economy is going to keep on lurching from one crisis to another. Meanwhile the biosphere is responding to the many perturbations imposed on it by human stupidity in the way that systems theory predicts—with ponderous but implacable shifts toward new conditions, many of which don’t augur well for the survival of industrial society.

There are wild cards in the deck, though, and one of them is being played right now over the North Pole. As I write this, air temperatures over the Arctic ice cap are 50°F warmer than usual for this time of year. A destabilized jet stream is sucking masses of warm air north into the Arctic skies, while pushing masses of Arctic air down into the temperate zone. As a result, winter ice formation on the surface of the Arctic ocean has dropped to levels tht were apparently last seen before our species got around to evolving—and a real possibility exists, though it’s by no means a certainty yet, that next summer could see most of the Arctic Ocean free of ice.

Nobody knows what that will do to the global climate. The climatologists who’ve been trying to model the diabolically complex series of cascading feedback loops we call “global climate” have no clue—they have theories and computer models, but so far their ability to predict the rate and consequences of anthropogenic climate change have not exactly been impressive. (For what it’s worth, by the way, most of their computer models have turned out to be far too conservative in their predictions.) Nobody knows yet whether the soaring temperatures over the North Pole this winter are a fluke, a transitory phenomenon driven by the unruly transition between one climate regime and another, or the beginning of a recurring pattern that will restore the north coast of Canada to the conditions it had during the Miocene, when crocodiles sunned themselves on the warm beaches of northern Greenland. We simply don’t know.

In the same way, the populist backlash mentioned above is a wild card whose effects nobody can predict just now. The neoliberal economics that have been welded into place in the industrial world for the last thirty years have failed comprehensively, that’s clear enough.  The abolition of barriers to the flow of goods, capital, and population did not bring the global prosperity that neoliberal economists promised, and now the bill is coming due. The question is what the unraveling of the neoliberal system means for national economies in the years ahead.

There are people—granted, these are mostly neoliberal economists and those who’ve drunk rather too freely of the neoliberal koolaid—who insist that the abandonment of the neoliberal project will inevitably mean economic stagnation and contraction. There are those who insist that the abandonment of the neoliberal project will inevitably mean a return to relative prosperity here in the US, as offshored jobs are forced back stateside by tax policies that penalize imports, and the US balance of trade reverts to something a little closer to parity. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows what the results will be. Here as in Britain, voters faced with a choice between the perpetuation of an intolerable status quo and a leap in the dark chose the latter, and the consequences of that leap can’t be known in advance.

Other examples abound. The US president-elect has claimed repeatedly that the US under his lead will get out of the regime-change business and pursue a less monomaniacally militaristic foreign policy than the one it’s pursued under Bush and Obama, and would have pursued under Clinton. The end of the US neoconservative consensus is a huge change that will send shockwaves through the global political system. Another change, at least as huge, is the rise of Russia as a major player in the Middle East. Another? The remilitarization of Japan and its increasingly forceful pursuit of political and military alliances in East and South Asia. There are others. The familiar order of global politics is changing fast. What will the outcome be? Nobody knows.

As 2017 dawns, in a great many ways, modern industrial civilization has flung itself forward into a darkness where no stars offer guidance and no echoes tell what lies ahead. I suspect that when we look back at the end of this year, the predictable unfolding of ongoing trends will have to be weighed against sudden discontinuities that nobody anywhere saw coming.  We’re not discussing the end of the world, of course; we’re talking events like those that can be found repeated many times in the histories of other failing civilizations.  That said, my guess is that some of those discontinuities are going to be harsh ones.  Those who brace themselves for serious trouble and reduce their vulnerabilities to a brittle and dysfunctional system will be more likely to come through in one piece.

Those who are about to celebrate the end of 2016, in other words, might want to moderate their cheering when it’s over. It’s entirely possible that 2017 will turn out to be rather worse—despite which I hope that the readers of this blog, and the people they care about, will manage to have a happy New Year anyway.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Season of Consequences

One of the many advantages of being a Druid is that you get to open your holiday presents four days early. The winter solstice—Alban Arthuan, to use one term for it in the old-fashioned Druid Revival traditions I practice—is one of the four main holy days of the Druid year. Though the actual moment of solstice wobbles across a narrow wedge of the calendar, the celebration traditionally takes place on December 21.  Yes, Druids give each other presents, hang up decorations, and enjoy as sumptuous a meal as resources permit, to celebrate the rekindling of light and hope in the season of darkness.

Come to think of it, I’m far from sure why more people who don’t practice the Christian faith still celebrate Christmas, rather than the solstice. It’s by no means necessary to believe in the Druid gods and goddesses to find the solstice relevant; a simple faith in orbital inclination is sufficient reason for the season, after all—and since a good many Christians in America these days are less than happy about what’s been done to their holy day, it seems to me that it would be polite to leave Christmas to them, have our celebrations four days earlier, and cover their shifts at work on December 25th in exchange for their covering ours on the 21st. (Back before my writing career got going, when I worked in nursing homes to pay the bills, my Christian coworkers and I did this as a matter of course; we also swapped shifts around Easter and the spring equinox. Religious pluralism has its benefits.)

Those of my readers who don’t happen to be Druids, but who are tempted by the prospect just sketched out, will want to be aware of a couple of details. For one thing, you won’t catch Druids killing a tree in order to stick it in their living room for a few weeks as a portable ornament stand and fire hazard. Druids think there should be more trees in the world, not fewer! A live tree or, if you must, an artificial one, would be a workable option, but a lot of Druids simply skip the tree altogether and hang ornaments on the mantel, or what have you.

Oh, and most of us don’t do Santa Claus. I’m not sure why Santa Claus is popular among Christians, for that matter, or among anyone else who isn’t a devout believer in the ersatz religion of Consumerism—which admittedly has no shortage of devotees just now. There was a time when Santa hadn’t yet been turned into a poorly paid marketing consultant to the toy industry; go back several centuries, and he was the Christian figure of St. Nicholas; and before then he may have been something considerably stranger. To those who know their way around the traditions of Siberian shamanism, certainly, the conjunction of flying reindeer and an outfit colored like the famous and perilous hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria is at least suggestive.

Still, whether he takes the form of salesman, saint, or magic mushroom, Druids tend to give the guy in the red outfit a pass. Solstice symbolism varies from one tradition of Druidry to another—like almost everything else among Druids—but in the end of the tradition I practice, each of the Alban Gates (the solstices and equinoxes) has its own sacred animal, and the animal that corresponds to Alban Arthuan is the bear. If by some bizarre concatenation of circumstances Druidry ever became a large enough faith in America to attract the attention of the crazed marketing minions of consumerdom, you’d doubtless see Hallmark solstice cards for sale with sappy looking cartoon bears on them, bear-themed decorations in windows, bear ornaments to hang from the mantel, and the like.

While I could do without the sappy looking cartoons, I definitely see the point of bears as an emblem of the winter solstice, because there’s something about them that too often gets left out of the symbolism of Christmas and the like—though it used to be there, and relatively important, too. Bears are cute, no question; they’re warm and furry and cuddlesome, too; but they’re also, ahem, carnivores, and every so often, when people get sufficiently stupid in the vicinity of bears, the bears kill and eat them.

That is to say, bears remind us that actions have consequences.

I’m old enough that I still remember the days when the folk mythology surrounding Santa Claus had not quite shed the last traces of a similar reminder. According to the accounts of Santa I learned as a child, naughty little children ran a serious risk of waking up Christmas morning to find no presents at all, and a sorry little lump of coal in their stockings in place of the goodies they expected. I don’t recall any of my playmates having that happen to them, and it never happened to me—though I arguably deserved it rather more than once—but every child I knew took it seriously, and tried to moderate their misbehavior at least a little during the period after Thanksgiving. That detail of the legend may still survive here and there, for all I know, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the big guy in red is retailed by the media these days.

For that matter, the version I learned was a pale shadow of a far more unnerving original. In many parts of Europe, when St. Nicholas does the rounds, he’s accompanied by a frightening figure with various names and forms. In parts of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, it’s Krampus—a hairy devil with goat’s horns and a long lolling tongue, who prances around with a birch switch in his hand and a wicker basket on his back. While the saint hands out presents to good children, Krampus is there for the benefit of the others; small-time junior malefactors can expect a thrashing with the birch switch, while the legend has it that the shrieking, spoiled little horrors at the far end of the naughty-child spectrum get popped into the wicker basket and taken away, and nobody ever hears from them again.

Yes, I know, that sort of thing’s unthinkable in today’s America, and I have no idea whether anyone still takes it with any degree of seriousness over in Europe. Those of my readers who find the entire concept intolerable, though, may want to stop for a moment and think about the context in which that bit of folk tradition emerged. Before fossil fuels gave the world’s industrial nations the temporary spate of abundance that they now enjoy, the coming of winter in the northern temperate zone was a serious matter. The other three seasons had to be full of hard work and careful husbandry, if you were going to have any particular likelihood of seeing spring before you starved or froze to death.

By the time the solstice came around, you had a tolerably good idea just how tight things were going to be by the time spring arrived and the first wild edibles showed up to pad out the larder a bit. The first pale gleam of dawn after the long solstice night was a welcome reminder that spring was indeed on its way, and so you took whatever stored food you could spare, if you could spare any at all, and turned it into a high-calorie, high-nutrient feast, to provide warm memories and a little additional nourishment for the bleak months immediately ahead.

In those days, remember, children who refused to carry their share of the household economy might indeed expect to be taken away and never be heard from again, though the taking away would normally be done by some combination of hunger, cold, and sickness, rather than a horned and hairy devil with a lolling tongue. Of course a great many children died anyway.  A failed harvest, a longer than usual winter, an epidemic, or the ordinary hazards of life in a nonindustrial society quite regularly put a burst of small graves in the nearest churchyard. It was nonetheless true that good children, meaning here those who paid attention, learned fast, worked hard, and did their best to help keep the household running smoothly, really did have a better shot at survival.

One of the most destructive consequences of the age of temporary abundance that fossil fuels gave to the world’s industrial nations, in turn, is the widespread conviction that consequences don’t matter—that it’s unreasonable, even unfair, to expect anyone to have to deal with the blowback from their own choices. That’s a pervasive notion these days, and its effects show up in an astonishing array of contexts throughout contemporary culture, but yes, it’s particularly apparent when it comes to the way children get raised in the United States these days.

The interesting thing here is that the children aren’t necessarily happy about that. If you’ve ever watched a child systematically misbehave in an attempt to get a parent to react, you already know that kids by and large want to know where the limits are. It’s the adults who want to give tests and then demand that nobody be allowed to fail them, who insist that everybody has to get an equal share of the goodies no matter how much or little they’ve done to earn them, and so on through the whole litany of attempts to erase the reality that actions have consequences.

That erasure goes very deep. Have you noticed, for example, that year after year, at least here in the United States, the Halloween monsters on public display get less and less frightening? These days, far more often than not, the ghosts and witches, vampires and Frankenstein’s monsters splashed over Hallmark cards and window displays in the late October monster ghetto have big goofy grins and big soft eyes. The wholesome primal terrors that made each of these things iconic in the first place—the presence of the unquiet dead, the threat of wicked magic, the ghastly vision of walking corpses, whether risen from the grave to drink your blood or reassembled and reanimated by science run amok—are denied to children, and saccharine simulacra are propped up in their places.

Here again, children aren’t necessarily happy about that. The bizarre modern recrudescence of the Victorian notion that children are innocent little angels tells me, if nothing else, that most adults must go very far out of their way to forget their own childhoods. Children aren’t innocent little angels; they’re fierce little animals, which is of course exactly what they should be, and they need roughly the same blend of gentleness and discipline that wolves use on their pups to teach them to moderate their fierceness and live in relative amity with the other members of the pack.  Being fierce, they like to be scared a little from time to time; that’s why they like to tell each other ghost stories, the more ghoulish the better, and why they run with lolling tongues toward anything that promises them a little vicarious blood and gore. The early twentieth century humorist Ogden Nash nailed it when he titled one of his poems “Don’t Cry, Darling, It’s Blood All Right.”

Traditional fairy tales delighted countless generations of children for three good and sufficient reasons. First of all, they’re packed full of wonderful events. Second, they’re positively dripping with gore, which as already noted is an instant attraction to any self-respecting child. Third, they’ve got a moral—which means, again, that they are about consequences. The selfish, cruel, and stupid characters don’t get patted on the head, given the same prize as everyone else, and shielded from the results of their selfishness, cruelty, and stupidity; instead, they get gobbled up by monsters, turned to stone by witches’ curses, or subjected to some other suitably grisly doom. It’s the characters who are honest, brave, and kind who go on to become King or Queen of Everywhere.

Such things are utterly unacceptable, according to the approved child-rearing notions of our day.  Ask why this should be the case and you can count on being told that expecting a child to have to deal with the consequences of its actions decreases it’s self-esteem. No doubt that’s true, but this is another of those many cases where people in our society manage not to notice that the opposite of one bad thing is usually another bad thing. Is there such a thing as too little self-esteem? Of course—but there is also such a thing as too much self-esteem. In fact, we have a common and convenient English word for somebody who has too much self-esteem. That word is “jerk.”

The cult of self-esteem in contemporary pop psychology has thus produced a bumper crop of jerks in today’s America. I’m thinking here, among many other examples, of the woman who made the news a little while back by strolling right past the boarding desk at an airport, going down the ramp, and taking her seat on the airplane ahead of all the other passengers, just because she felt she was entitled to do so. When the cabin crew asked her to leave and wait her turn like everyone else, she ignored them; security was called, and she ignored them, too. They finally had to drag her down the aisle and up the ramp like a sack of potatoes, and hand her over to the police. I’m pleased to say she’s up on charges now.

That woman had tremendous self-esteem. She esteemed herself so highly that she was convinced that the rules that applied to everyone else surely couldn’t apply to her—and that’s normally the kind of attitude you can count on from someone whose self-esteem has gone up into the toxic-overdose range. Yet the touchstone of excessive self-esteem, the gold standard of jerkdom, is the complete unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility that actions have consequences and you might have to deal with those, whether you want to or not.

That sort of thing is stunningly common in today’s society. It was that kind of overinflated self-esteem that convinced affluent liberals in the United States and Europe that they could spend thirty years backing policies that pandered to their interests while slamming working people face first into the gravel, without ever having to deal with the kind of blowback that arrived so dramatically in the year just past. Now Britain is on its way out of the European Union, Donald Trump is mailing invitations to his inaugural ball, and the blowback’s not finished yet. Try to point this out to the people whose choices made that blowback inevitable, though, and if my experience is anything to go by, you’ll be ignored if you’re not shouted down.

On an even greater scale, of course, there’s the conviction on the part of an astonishing number of people that we can keep on treating this planet as a combination cookie jar to raid and garbage bin to dump wastes in, and never have to deal with the consequences of that appallingly shortsighted set of policies. That’s as true in large swathes of the allegedly green end of things, by the way, as it is among the loudest proponents of smokestacks and strip mines. I’ve long since lost track of the number of people I’ve met who insist loudly on how much they love the Earth and how urgent it is that “we” protect the environment, but who aren’t willing to make a single meaningful change in their own personal consumption of resources and production of pollutants to help that happen.

Consequences don’t go away just because we don’t want to deal with them. That lesson is being taught right now on low-lying seacoasts around the world, where streets that used to be well above the high tide line reliably flood with seawater when a high tide meets an onshore wind; it’s being taught on the ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica, which are moving with a decidedly un-glacial rapidity through a trajectory of collapse that hasn’t been seen since the end of the last ice age; it’s being taught in a hundred half-noticed corners of an increasingly dysfunctional global economy, as the externalized costs of technological progress pile up unnoticed and drag economic activity to a halt; and of course it’s being taught, as already noted, in the capitals of the industrial world, where the neoliberal orthodoxy of the last thirty years is reeling under the blows of a furious populist backlash.

It didn’t have to be learned that way. We could have learned it from Krampus or the old Santa Claus, the one who was entirely willing to leave a badly behaved child’s stocking empty on Christmas morning except for that single eloquent lump of coal; we could have learned it from the fairy tales that taught generations of children that consequences matter; we could have learned it from any number of other sources, given a little less single-minded a fixation on maximizing self-esteem right past the red line on the meter—but enough of us didn’t learn it that way, and so here we are.

I’d therefore like to encourage those of my readers who have young children in their lives to consider going out and picking up a good old-fashioned collection of fairy tales, by Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm, and use those in place of the latest mass-marketed consequence-free pap when it comes to storytelling time. The children will thank you for it, and so will everyone who has to deal with them in their adult lives. Come to think of it, those of my readers who don’t happen to have young children in their lives might consider doing the same thing for their own benefit, restocking their imaginations with cannibal giants and the other distinctly unmodern conveniences thereof, and benefiting accordingly.

And if, dear reader, you are ever tempted to climb into the lap of the universe and demand that it fork over a long list of goodies, and you glance up expecting to see the jolly and long-suffering face of Santa Claus beaming down at you, don’t be too surprised if you end up staring in horror at the leering yellow eyes and lolling tongue of Krampus instead, as he ponders whether you’ve earned a thrashing with the birch switch or a ride in the wicker basket—or perhaps the great furry face of the Solstice bear, the beast of Alban Arthuan, as she blinks myopically at you for a moment before she either shoves you from her lap with one powerful paw, or tears your arm off and gnaws on it meditatively while you bleed to death on the cold, cold ground.

Because the universe doesn’t care what you think you deserve. It really doesn’t—and, by the way, the willingness of your fellow human beings to take your wants and needs into account will by and large be precisely measured by your willingness to do the same for them.

And on that utterly seasonal note, I wish all my fellow Druids a wonderful solstice; all my Christian friends and readers, a very merry Christmas; and all my readers, whatever their faith or lack thereof, a rekindling of light, hope, and sanity in a dark and troubled time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Why the Peak Oil Movement Failed

As I glance back across the trajectory of this blog over the last ten and a half years, one change stands out. When I began blogging in May of 2006, peak oil—the imminent peaking of global production of conventional petroleum, to unpack that gnomic phrase a little—was the central theme of a large, vocal, and tolerably well organized movement. It had its own visible advocacy organizations, it had national and international conferences, it had a small but noticeable presence in the political sphere, and it showed every sign of making its presence felt in the broader conversation of our time.

Today none of that is true. Of the three major peak oil organizations in the US, ASPO-USA—that’s the US branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, for those who don’t happen to be fluent in acronym—is apparently moribund; Post Carbon Institute, while it still plays a helpful role from time to time as a platform for veteran peak oil researcher Richard Heinberg, has otherwise largely abandoned its former peak oil focus in favor of generic liberal environmentalism; and the US branch of the Transition organization, formerly the Transition Town movement, is spinning its wheels in a rut laid down years back. The conferences ASPO-USA once hosted in Washington DC, with congresscritters in attendance, stopped years ago, and an attempt to host a national conference in southern Pennsylvania fizzled after three years and will apparently not be restarted.

Ten years ago, for that matter, opinion blogs and news aggregators with a peak oil theme were all over the internet. Today that’s no longer the case, either. The fate of the two most influential peak oil sites, The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, is indicative. The Oil Drum simply folded, leaving its existing pages up as a legacy of a departed era.  Energy Bulletin, for its part, was taken over by Post Carbon Institute and given a new name and theme as It then followed PCI in its drift toward the already overcrowded environmental mainstream, replacing the detailed assessment of energy futures that was the staple fare of Energy Bulletin with the sort of uncritical enthusiasm for an assortment of vaguely green causes more typical of the pages of Yes! Magazine.

There are still some peak oil sites soldiering away—notably Peak Oil Barrel, under the direction of former Oil Drum regular Ron Patterson.  There are also a handful of public figures still trying to keep the concept in circulation, with the aforementioned Richard Heinberg arguably first among them. Aside from those few, though, what was once a significant movement is for all practical purposes dead. The question that deserves asking is simple enough: what happened?

One obvious answer is that the peak oil movement was the victim of its own failed predictions. It’s true, to be sure, that failed predictions were a commonplace of the peak oil scene. It wasn’t just the overenthusiastic promoters of alternative energy technologies, who year after year insisted that the next twelve months would see their pet technology leap out of its current obscurity to make petroleum a fading memory; it wasn’t just their exact equivalents, the overenthusiastic promoters of apocalyptic predictions, who year after year insisted that the next twelve months would see the collapse of the global economy, the outbreak of World War III, the imposition of a genocidal police state, or whatever other sudden cataclysm happened to have seized their fancy.

No, the problem with failed predictions ran straight through the movement, even—or especially—in its more serious manifestations. The standard model of the future accepted through most of the peak oil scene started from a set of inescapable facts and an unexamined assumption, and the combination of those things produced consistently false predictions. The inescapable facts were that the Earth is finite, that it contains a finite supply of petroleum, and that various lines of evidence showed conclusively that global production of conventional petroleum was approaching its peak for hard geological reasons, and could no longer keep increasing thereafter.

The unexamined assumption was that geological realities rather than economic forces would govern how fast the remaining reserves of conventional petroleum would be extracted. On that basis, most people in the peak oil movement assumed that as production peaked and began to decline, the price of petroleum would rise rapidly, placing an increasingly obvious burden on the global economy. The optimists in the movement argued that this, in turn, would force nations around the world to recognize what was going on and make the transition to other energy sources, and to the massive conservation programs that would be needed to deal with the gap between the cheap abundant energy that petroleum used to provide and the more expensive and less abundant energy available from other sources. The pessimists, for their part, argued that it was already too late for such a transition, and that industrial civilization would come apart at the seams.

As it turned out, though, the unexamined assumption was wrong. Geological realities imposed, and continue to impose, upper limits on global petroleum production, but economic forces have determined how much less than those upper limits would actually be produced. What happened, as a result, is that when oil prices spiked in 2007 and 2008, and then again in 2014 and 2015, consumers cut back on their use of petroleum products, while producers hurried to bring marginal petroleum sources such as tar sands and oil shales into production to take advantage of the high prices. Both those steps drove prices back down. Low prices, in turn, encouraged consumers to use more petroleum products, and forced producers to shut down marginal sources that couldn’t turn a profit when oil was less than $80 a barrel; both these steps, in turn, sent prices back up.

That doesn’t mean that peak oil has gone away. As oilmen like to say, depletion never sleeps; each time the world passes through the cycle just described, the global economy takes another body blow, and the marginal petroleum sources cost much more to extract and process than the light sweet crude on which the oil industry used to rely. The result, though, is that instead of a sudden upward zoom in prices that couldn’t be ignored, we’ve gotten wild swings in commodity prices, political and social turmoil, and a global economy stuck in creeping dysfunction that stubbornly refuses to behave the way it did when petroleum was still cheap and abundant. The peak oil movement wasn’t prepared for that future.

Granting all this, failed predictions aren’t enough by themselves to stop a movement in its tracks. Here in the United States, especially, we’ve got an astonishing tolerance for predictive idiocy. The economists who insisted that neoliberal policies would surely bring prosperity, for example, haven’t been laughed into obscurity by the mere fact that they were dead wrong; au contraire, they’re still drawing their paychecks and being taken seriously by politicians and the media. The pundits who insisted at the top of their lungs that Britain wouldn’t vote for Brexit and Donald Trump couldn’t possibly win the US presidency are still being taken seriously, too. Nor, to move closer to the activist fringes, has the climate change movement been badly hurt by the embarrassingly linear models of imminent doom it used to deploy with such abandon; the climate change movement is in deep trouble, granted, but its failure has other causes.

It was the indirect impacts of those failed predictions, rather, that helped run the peak oil movement into the ground. The most important of these, to my mind, was the way that those predictions encouraged people in the movement to put their faith in the notion that sometime very soon, governments and businesses would have to take peak oil seriously. That’s what inspired ASPO-USA, for example, to set up a lobbying office in Washington DC with a paid executive director, when the long-term funding for such a project hadn’t yet been secured. On another plane, that’s what undergirded the entire strategy of the Transition Town movement in its original incarnation: get plans drawn up and officially accepted by as many town governments as possible, so that once the arrival of peak oil becomes impossible to ignore, the plan for what to do about it would already be in place.

Of course the difficulty in both cases was that the glorious day of public recognition never arrived. The movement assumed that events would prove its case in the eyes of the general public and the political system alike, and so made no realistic plans about what to do if that didn’t happen. When it didn’t happen, in turn, the movement was left twisting in the wind.

The conviction that politicians, pundits, and the public would be forced by events to acknowledge the truth about peak oil had other consequences that helped hamstring the movement. Outreach to the vast majority that wasn’t yet on board the peak oil bandwagon, for example, got far too little attention or funding. Early on in the movement, several books meant for general audiences—James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over are arguably the best examples—helped lay the foundations for a more effective outreach program, but the organized followup that might have built on those foundations never really happened. Waiting on events took the place of shaping events, and that’s almost always a guarantee of failure.

One particular form of waiting on events that took a particularly steep toll on the movement was its attempts to get funding from wealthy donors. I’ve been told that Post Carbon Institute got itself funded in this way, while as far as I know, ASPO-USA never did. Win or lose, though, begging for scraps at the tables of the rich is a sucker’s game.  In social change as in every other aspect of life, who pays the piper calls the tune, and the rich—who benefit more than anyone else from business as usual—can be counted on to defend their interest by funding only those activities that don’t seriously threaten the continuation of business as usual. Successful movements for social change start by taking effective action with the resources they can muster by themselves, and build their own funding base by attracting people who believe in their mission strongly enough to help pay for it.

There were other reasons why the peak oil movement failed, of course. To its credit, it managed to avoid two of the factors that ran the climate change movement into the ground, as detailed in the essay linked above—it never became a partisan issue, mostly because no political party in the US was willing to touch it with a ten foot pole, and the purity politics that insists that supporters of one cause are only acceptable in its ranks if they also subscribe to a laundry list of other causes never really got a foothold outside of certain limited circles. Piggybacking—the flipside of purity politics, which demands that no movement be allowed to solve one problem without solving every other problem as well—was more of a problem, and so, in a big way, was pandering to the privileged—I long ago lost track of the number of times I heard people in the peak oil scene insist that this or that high-end technology, which was only affordable by the well-to-do, was a meaningful response to the coming of peak oil.

There are doubtless other reasons as well; it’s a feature of all things human that failure is usually overdetermined. At this point, though, I’d like to set that aside for a moment and consider two other points. The first is that the movement didn’t have to fail the way it did. The second is that it could still be revived and gotten back on a more productive track.

To begin with, not everyone in the peak oil scene bought into the unexamined assumption I’ve critiqued above. Well before the movement started running itself into the ground, some of us pointed out that economic factors were going to have a massive impact on the rates of petroleum production and consumption—my first essay on that theme appeared here in April of 2007, and I was far from the first person to notice it. The movement by that time was so invested in its own predictions, with their apparent promise of public recognition and funding, that those concerns didn’t have an impact at the time. Even when the stratospheric oil price spike of 2008 was followed by a bust, though, peak oil organizations by and large don’t seem to have reconsidered their strategies. A mid-course correction at that point, wrenching though it might have been, could have kept the movement alive.

There were also plenty of good examples of effective movements for social change from which useful lessons could have been drawn. One difficulty is that you won’t find such examples in today’s liberal environmental mainstream, which for all practical purposes hasn’t won a battle since Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. The struggle for the right to same-sex marriage, as I’ve noted before, is quite another matter—a grassroots movement that, despite sparse funding and strenuous opposition, played a long game extremely well and achieved its goal. There are other such examples, on both sides of today’s partisan divide, from which useful lessons can be drawn. Pay attention to how movements for change succeed and how they fail, and it’s not hard to figure out how to play the game effectively. That could have been done at any point in the history of the peak oil movement. It could still be done now.

Like same-sex marriage, after all, peak oil isn’t inherently a partisan issue. Like same-sex marriage, it offers plenty of room for compromise and coalition-building. Like same-sex marriage, it’s a single issue, not a fossilized total worldview like those that play so large and dysfunctional a role in today’s political nonconversations. A peak oil movement that placed itself squarely in the abandoned center of contemporary politics, played both sides against each other, and kept its eyes squarely on the prize—educating politicians and the public about the reality of finite fossil fuel reserves, and pushing for projects that will mitigate the cascading environmental and economic impacts of peak oil—could do a great deal to  reshape our collective narrative about energy and, in the process, accomplish quite a bit to make the long road down from peak oil less brutal than it will otherwise be.

I’m sorry to say that the phrase “peak oil,” familiar and convenient as it is, probably has to go.  The failures of the movement that coalesced around that phrase were serious and visible enough that some new moniker will be needed for the time being, to avoid being tarred with a well-used brush. The crucial concept of net energy—the energy a given resource provides once you subtract the energy needed to extract, process, and use it—would have to be central to the first rounds of education and publicity; since it’s precisely equivalent to profit, a concept most people grasp quickly enough, that’s not necessarily a hard thing to accomplish, but it has to be done, because it’s when the concept of net energy is solidly understood that such absurdities as commercial fusion power appear in their true light.

It probably has to be said up front that no such project will keep the end of the industrial age from being an ugly mess. That’s already baked into the cake at this point; what were once problems to be solved have become predicaments that we can, at best, only mitigate. Nor could a project of the sort I’ve very roughly sketched out here expect any kind of overnight success. It would have to play a long game in an era when time is running decidedly short. Challenging? You bet—but I think it’s a possibility worth serious consideration.

In other news, I’m delighted to announce the appearance of two books that will be of interest to readers of this blog. The first is Dmitry Orlov’s latest, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-Sufficiency, and Freedom. It’s a trenchant and thoughtful analysis of the gap between the fantasies of human betterment through technological progress and the antihuman mess that’s resulted from the pursuit of those fantasies, and belongs on the same shelf as Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society and my After Progress: Religion and Reason in the Twilight of the Industrial Age. Copies hot off the press can be ordered from New Society here.

Meanwhile, Space Bats fans will want to know that the anthology of short stories and novellas set in the world of my novel Star’s Reach is now available for preorder from Founders House here. Merigan Tales is a stellar collection, as good as any of the After Oil anthologies, and fans of Star’s Reach won’t want to miss it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Fifth Side of the Triangle

One of the things I’ve had occasion to notice, over the course of the decade or so I’ve put into writing these online essays, is the extent to which repeating patterns in contemporary life go unnoticed by the people who are experiencing them. I’m not talking here about the great cycles of history, which take long enough to roll over that a certain amount of forgetfulness can be expected; the repeating patterns I have in mind come every few years, and yet very few people seem to notice the repetition.

An example that should be familiar to my readers is the way that, until recently, one energy source after another got trotted out on the media and the blogosphere as the excuse du jour for doing nothing about the ongoing depletion of global fossil fuel reserves. When this blog first got under way in 2006, ethanol from corn was the excuse; then it was algal biodiesel; then it was nuclear power from thorium; then it was windfarms and solar PV installations; then it was oil and gas from fracking. In each case, the same rhetorical handwaving about abundance was deployed for the same purpose, the same issues of net energy and concentration were evaded, and the resource in question never managed to live up to the overblown promises made in its name—and yet any attempt to point out the similarities got blank looks and the inevitable refrain, “but this is different.”

The drumbeat of excuses du jour has slackened a bit just now, and that’s also part of a repeating pattern that doesn’t get anything like the scrutiny it deserves. Starting when conventional petroleum production worldwide reached its all-time plateau, in the first years of this century, the price of oil has jolted up and down in a multiyear cycle. The forces driving the cycle are no mystery: high prices encourage producers to bring marginal sources online, but they also decrease demand; the excess inventories of petroleum that result drive down prices; low prices encourage consumers to use more, but they also cause marginal sources to be shut down; the shortfalls of petroleum that result drive prices up, and round and round the mulberry bush we go.

We’re just beginning to come out of the trough following the 2015 price peak, and demand is even lower than it would otherwise be, due to cascading troubles in the global economy. Thus, for the moment, there’s enough petroleum available to supply everyone who can afford to buy it. If the last two cycles are anything to go by, though, oil prices will rise unsteadily from here, reaching a new peak in 2021 or so before slumping down into a new trough. How many people are paying attention to this, and using the current interval of relatively cheap energy to get ready for another period of expensive energy a few years from now? To judge from what I’ve seen, not many.

Just at the moment, though, the example of repetition that comes first to my mind has little to do with energy, except in a metaphorical sense. It’s the way that people committed to a cause—any cause—are so often so flustered when initial successes are followed by something other than repeated triumph forever. Now of course part of the reason that’s on my mind is the contortions still ongoing on the leftward end of the US political landscape, as various people try to understand (or in some cases, do their level best to misunderstand) the implications of last month’s election. Still, that’s not the only reason this particular pattern keeps coming to mind.

I’m also thinking of it as the Eurozone sinks deeper and deeper into political crisis. The project of European unity had its initial successes, and a great many European politicians and pundits seem to have convinced themselves that of course those would be repeated step by step, until a United States of Europe stepped out on the international stage as the world’s next superpower. It’s pretty clear at this point that nothing of the sort is going to happen, because those initial successes were followed by a cascade of missteps and a populist backlash that’s by no means reached its peak yet.

More broadly, the entire project of liberal internationalism that’s guided the affairs of the industrial world since the Berlin Wall came down is in deep trouble. It’s been enormously profitable for the most affluent 20% or so of the industrial world’s population, which is doubtless a core reason why that same 20% insists so strenuously that no other options are possible, but it’s been an ongoing disaster for the other 80% or so, and they are beginning to make their voices heard.

At the heart of the liberal project was the insistence that economics should trump politics—that the free market should determine policy in most matters, leaving governments only an administrative function. Of course that warm and cozy abstraction “the free market” meant in practice the kleptocratic corporate socialism of too-big-to-fail banks and subsidy-guzzling multinationals, which proceeded to pursue their own short-term benefit so recklessly that they’ve driven entire countries into the ground. That’s brought about the inevitable backlash, and the proponents of liberal internationalism are discovering to their bafflement that if enough of the electorate is driven to the wall, the political sphere may just end up holding the Trump card after all.

And of course the same bafflement is on display in the wake of last month’s presidential election, as a great many people who embraced our domestic version of the liberal internationalist idea were left dumbfounded by its defeat at the hands of the electorate—not just by those who voted for Donald Trump, but also by the millions who stayed home and drove Democratic turnout in the 2016 election down to levels disastrously low for Hillary Clinton’s hopes. A great many of the contortions mentioned above have been driven by the conviction on the part of Clinton’s supporters that their candidate’s defeat was caused by a rejection of the ideals of contemporary American liberalism. That some other factor might have been involved is not, at the moment, something many of them are willing to hear.

That’s where the repeating pattern comes in, because movements for social change—whether they come from the grassroots or the summits of power—are subject to certain predictable changes, and if those changes aren’t recognized and countered in advance, they lead to the kind of results I’ve just been discussing. There are several ways to talk about those changes, but the one I’d like to use here unfolds, in a deliberately quirky way, from the Hegelian philosophy of history.

That probably needs an explanation, and indeed an apology, because Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has been responsible for more sheer political stupidity than any other thinker of modern times. Across the bloodsoaked mess that was the twentieth century, from revolutionary Marxism in its opening years to Francis Fukuyama’s risible fantasy of the End of History in its closing, where you found Hegelian political philosophy, you could be sure that someone was about to make a mistaken prediction.

It may not be entirely fair to blame Hegel personally for this. His writings and lectures are vast heaps of cloudy abstraction in which his students basically had to chase down inkblot patterns of their own making. Hegel’s great rival Arthur Schopenhauer used to insist that Hegel was a deliberate fraud, stringing together meaningless sequences of words in the hope that his readers would mistake obscurity for profundity, and more than once—especially when slogging through the murky prolixities of Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit—I’ve suspected that the old grouch of Frankfurt was right. Still, we can let that pass, because a busy industry of Hegelian philosophers spent the last century and a half churning out theories of their own based, to one extent or another, on Hegel’s vaporings, and it’s this body of work that most people mean when they talk about Hegelian philosophy.

At the core of most Hegelian philosophies of history is a series of words that used to be famous, and still has a certain cachet in some circles: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. (Hegel himself apparently never used those terms in their later sense, but no matter.) That’s the three-step dance to the music of time that, in the Hegelian imagination, shapes human history. You’ve got one condition of being, or state of human consciousness, or economic system, or political system, or what have you; it infallibly generates its opposite; the two collide, and then there’s a synthesis which resolves the initial contradiction. Then the synthesis becomes a thesis, generates its own antithesis, a new synthesis is born, and so on.

One of the oddities about Hegelian philosophies of history is that, having set up this repeating process, their proponents almost always insist that it’s about to stop forever. In the full development of the Marxist theory of history, for example, the alternation of thesis-antithesis-synthesis starts with the primordial state of primitive communism and then chugs merrily, or rather far from merrily, through a whole series of economic systems, until finally true communism appears—and then that’s it; it’s the synthesis that never becomes a thesis and never conjures up an antithesis. In exactly the same way, Fukuyama’s theory of the end of history argued that all history until 1991 or so was a competition between different systems of political economy, of which liberal democratic capitalism and totalitarian Marxism were the last two contenders; capitalism won, Marxism lost, game over.

Now of course that’s part of the reason that Hegelianism so reliably generates false predictions, because in the real world it’s never game over; there’s always another round to play. There’s another dimension of Hegelian mistakenness, though, because the rhythm of the dialectic implies that the gains of one synthesis are never lost. Each synthesis becomes the basis for the next struggle between thesis and antithesis out of which a new synthesis emerges—and the new synthesis is always supposed to embody the best parts of the old.

This is where we move from orthodox Hegelianism to the quirky alternative I have in mind. It didn’t emerge out of the profound ponderings of serious philosophers of history in some famous European university. It first saw the light in a bowling alley in suburban Los Angeles, and the circumstances of its arrival—which, according to the traditional account, involved the miraculous appearance of a dignified elderly chimpanzee and the theophany of a minor figure from Greek mythology—suggest that prodigious amounts of drugs were probably involved.

Yes, we’re talking about Discordianism.

I’m far from sure how many of my readers are familiar with that phenomenon, which exists somewhere on the ill-defined continuum between deadpan put-on and serious philosophical critique. The short form is that it was cooked up by a couple of young men on the fringes of the California Beat scene right as that was beginning its mutation into the first faint adumbrations of the hippie phenomenon. Its original expression was the Principia Discordia, the scripture (more or less) of a religion (more or less) that worships (more or less) Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos, and its central theme is the absurdity of belief systems that treat orderly schemes cooked up in the human mind as though these exist out there in the bubbling, boiling confusion of actual existence.

That may not seem like fertile ground for a philosophy of history, but the Discordians came up with one anyway, probably in mockery of the ultraserious treatment of Hegelian philosophy that was common just then in the Marxist-existentialist end of the Beat scene. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson proceeded to pick up the Discordian theory of history and weave it into their tremendous satire of American conspiracy culture, the Illuminatus! trilogy. That’s where I encountered it originally in the late 1970s; I laughed, and then paused and ran my fingers through my first and very scruffy adolescent beard, realizing that it actually made more sense than any other theory of history I’d encountered.

Here’s how it works. From the Discordian point of view, Hegel went wrong for two reasons. The first was that he didn’t know about the Law of Fives, the basic Discordian principle that all things come in fives, except when they don’t. Thus he left off the final two steps of the dialectical process: after thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, you get parenthesis, and then paralysis.

The second thing Hegel missed is that the synthesis is never actually perfect.  It never succeeds wholly in resolving the conflict between thesis and antithesis; there are always awkward compromises, difficulties that are papered over, downsides that nobody figures out at the time, and so on. Thus it doesn’t take long for the synthesis to start showing signs of strain, and the inevitable response is to try to patch things up without actually changing anything that matters. The synthesis thus never has time to become a thesis and generate its own antithesis; it is its own antithesis, and ever more elaborate arrangements have to be put to work to keep it going despite its increasingly evident flaws; that’s the stage of parenthesis.

The struggle to maintain these arrangements, in turn, gradually usurps so much effort and attention that the original point of the synthesis is lost, and maintaining the arrangements themselves becomes too burdensome to sustain. That’s when you enter the stage of paralysis, when the whole shebang grinds slowly to a halt and then falls apart. Only after paralysis is total do you get a new thesis, which sweeps away the rubble and kickstarts the whole process into motion again.

There are traditional Discordian titles for these stages. The first, thesis, is the state of Chaos, when a group of human beings look out at the bubbling, boiling confusion of actual existence and decide to impose some kind of order on the mess. The second, antithesis, is the state of Discord, when the struggle to impose that order on the mess in question produces an abundance of equal and opposite reactions. The third, synthesis, is the state of Confusion, in which victory is declared over the chaos of mere existence, even though everything’s still bubbling and boiling merrily away as usual. The fourth, parenthesis, is the state of Consternation,* in which the fact that everything’s still bubbling and boiling merrily away as usual becomes increasingly hard to ignore. The fifth and final, paralysis, is the state of Moral Warptitude—don’t blame me, that’s what the Principia Discordia says—in which everything grinds to a halt and falls to the ground, and everyone stands around in the smoldering wreckage rubbing their eyes and wondering what happened.

*(Yes, I know, Robert Anton Wilson called the last two stages Bureaucracy and Aftermath. He was a heretic. So is every other Discordian, for that matter.)

Let’s apply this to the liberal international order that emerged in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall, and see how it fits. Thesis, the state of Chaos, was the patchwork of quarrelsome nations into which our species has divided itself, which many people of good will saw as barbarous relics of a violent past that should be restrained by a global economic order. Antithesis, the state of Discord, was the struggle to impose that order by way of trade agreements and the like, in the teeth of often violent resistance—the phrase “WTO Seattle” may come to mind here. Synthesis, the state of Confusion, was the self-satisfied cosmopolitan culture that sprang up among the affluent 20% or so of the industrial world’s population, who became convinced that the temporary ascendancy of policies that favored their interests was not only permanent but self-evidently right and just.

Parenthesis, the state of Consternation, was the decades-long struggle to prop up those policies despite the disastrous economic consequences those policies inflicted on everyone but the affluent. Finally, paralysis, the state of Moral Warptitude, sets in when populist movements, incensed by the unwillingness of the 20% to consider anyone else’s needs but their own, surge into the political sphere and bring the entire project to a halt. It’s worth noting here that the title “moral warptitude” may be bad English, but it’s a good description for the attitude of believers in the synthesis toward the unraveling of their preferred state of affairs. It’s standard, as just noted, for those who benefit from the synthesis to become convinced that it’s not merely advantageous but also morally good, and to see the forces that overthrow it as evil incarnate; this is simply another dimension of their Confusion.

Am I seriously suggesting that the drug-soaked ravings of a bunch of goofy California potheads provide a better guide to history than the serious reflections of Hegelian philosophers? Well, yes, actually, I am. Given the track record of Hegelian thought when it comes to history, a flipped coin is a better guide—use a coin, and you have a 50% better chance of being right. Outside of mainstream macroeconomic theory, it’s hard to think of a branch of modern thought that so consistently turns out false answers once it’s applied to the real world.

No doubt there are more respectable models that also provide a clear grasp of what happens to most movements for social change—the way they lose track of the difference between achieving their goals and pursuing their preferred strategies, and generally end up opting for the latter; the way that their institutional forms become ends in themselves, and gradually absorb the effort and resources that would otherwise have brought about change; the way that they run to extremes, chase off potential and actual supporters, and then busy themselves coming up with increasingly self-referential explanations for the fact that the only tactics they’re willing to consider are those that increase their own marginalization in the wider society, and so on. It’s a familiar litany, and will doubtless become even more familiar in the years ahead.

For what it’s worth, though, it’s not necessary for the two additional steps of the post-Hegelian dialectic, the fourth and fifth sides of his imaginary triangle, to result in the complete collapse of everything that was gained in the first three steps. It’s possible to surf the waves of Consternation and Moral Warptitude—but it’s not easy. Next week, we’ll explore this further, by circling back to the place where this blog began, and having a serious talk about how the peak oil movement failed.

In other news, I’m delighted to report that Retrotopia, which originally appeared here as a series of posts, is now in print in book form and available for sale. I’ve revised and somewhat expanded Peter Carr’s journey to the Lakeland Republic, and I hope it meets with the approval of my readers.

Also from Founders House, the first issue of the new science fiction and fantasy quarterly MYTHIC has just been released. Along with plenty of other lively stories, it’s got an essay of mine on the decline and revival of science fiction, and a short story, "The Phantom of the Dust," set in the same fictive universe as my novel The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, and pitting Owen Merrill and sorceress Jenny Chaudronnier against a sinister mystery from colonial days. Subscriptions and single copies can be ordered here.