Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Smile For The Aliens

Last week’s post, with its uncompromising portrayal of what descent into a dark age looks like, fielded the usual quota of voices insisting that it’s different this time. It’s a familiar chorus, and I confess to a certain wry amusement in watching so many changes get rung on what, after all, is ultimately a non sequitur. Grant that it’s different this time: so?  It’s different every time, and it always has been, yet those differences have never stopped history’s remarkably diverse stable of civilizations from plodding down the self-same track toward their common destiny.

It may also have occurred to my readers, and it has certainly occurred to me, that the legions of bloggers and pundits who base their reasonings on the claim that history has nothing to teach us don’t have to face a constant barrage of comments insisting that it’s the same this time. “It’s different this time” isn’t simply one opinion among others, after all; it’s one of the basic articles of faith of the contemporary industrial world, and questioning it reliably elicits screams of outrage even from those who like to tell themselves that they’ve rejected the conventional wisdom of the present day.

Yet that raises another question, one that’s going to bear down with increasing force in the years ahead of us: just how will people cope when some of their most cherished beliefs have to face a cage match with reality, and come out second best?

Such issues are rather on my mind just at the moment. Regular readers may recall that a while back I published a book, The UFO Phenomenon, which managed the not inconsiderable feat of offending both sides of the UFO controversy. It did so by the simple expedient of setting aside the folk mythology that’s been heaped up with equal enthusiasm by true believers in extraterrestrial visitation and true believers in today’s fashionable pseudoskeptical debunkery. After getting past that and a few other sources of confusion, I concluded that the most likely explanation for the phenomenon was that US military and intelligence agencies invented it out of whole cloth after the Second World War, as protective camouflage for an assortment of then-secret aerospace technologies.

That wasn’t the conclusion I expected to reach when I began work on the project; I had several other hypotheses in mind, all of which had to be considerably modified as the research proceeded. It was just too hard not to notice the way that the typical UFO sightings reported in any given decade so closely mimicked whatever the US was testing in secret at any given time—silvery dots or spheres in the late 1940s, when high-altitude balloons were the latest thing in aerial reconnaissance; points or tiny blobs of light high in the air in the 1950s, when the U-2 was still top secret; a phantasmagoria of flying lights and things dropping from the sky in the 1960s, when the SR-71 and the first spy satellites entered service; black triangles in the 1980s, when the first stealth aircraft were being tested, and so on. An assortment of further evidence pointing the same way, not to mention the significant parallels between the UFO phenomenon and those inflatable tanks and nonexistent battalions that tricked the Germans into missing the real preparations for D-Day, were further icing on a saucer-shaped cake.

To call that an unpopular suggestion is to understate the case considerably, though I’m pleased to say it didn’t greatly hurt sales of the book.  In the years since The UFO Phenomenon saw print, though, there’s been a steady stream of declassified documents from US intelligence agencies admitting that, yes, a lot of so-called UFOs were perfectly identifiable if you happened to know what classified projects the US government had in the air just then. It turns out, for example, that roughly half the UFO sightings reported to the Air Force’s Project Blue Book between 1952 and 1969 were CIA spyplanes; the officers in charge of Blue Book used to call the CIA when sightings came in, and issue bogus “explanations” to provide cover for what was, at the time, a top secret intelligence project. I have no reason to think that the publication of The UFO Phenomenon had anything to do with the release of all this data, but it was certainly a welcome confirmation of my analysis.

The most recent bit of confirmation hit the media a few weeks back. Connoisseurs of UFO history know that the Scandinavian countries went through a series of major “flaps”—periods in which many UFO sightings occured in a short time—in the 1950s and 1960s. The latest round of declassified data confirmed that these were sightings of US spyplanes snooping on the Soviet Union. The disclosures didn’t happen to mention whether CIA assets also spread lurid accounts of flying saucer sightings and alien visitations to help muddy the waters. My hypothesis is that that’s what was going on all the way through the history of the UFO phenomenon: fake stories and, where necessary, faked sightings kept public attention fixated on a manufactured mythology of flying saucers from outer space, so that the signal of what was actually happening never made it through the noise.

Many of my readers will already have guessed how the two sides of the UFO controversy responded to the disclosures just mentioned:  by and large, they haven’t responded to them at all. Believers in the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs are still insisting at the top of their lungs that some day very soon, the US government will be forced to ‘fess up to the reality of alien visitation—yes, I field emails from such people regularly. Believers in the null hypothesis, the claim that all UFO sightings result from hoaxes, illusions, or misidentification of ordinary phenomena, are still rehashing the same old arguments when they haven’t gone off to play at being skeptical about something else. That’s understandable, as both sides have ended up with substantial amounts of egg on their face.

Mind you, the believers in the extraterrestrial hypothesis were right about a great many more things than their rivals, and they deserve credit for that. They were right, for example, that people really were seeing unusual things in the skies; they were right that there was a coverup orchestrated by the US government, and that the Air Force was handing out explanations that it knew to be fake; they were even right in guessing that the Groom Lake airfield in Nevada, the legendary “Area 51,” was somehow central to the mystery—that was the main US spyplane testing and training base straight through the decades when the UFO mystery was at its peak. The one thing they got wrong was the real origin of the UFO phenomenon, but for them, unfortunately, that was the one thing that mattered.

The believers in the null hypothesis don’t have much reason to cheer, even though they turned out to be right about that one point. The disclosures have shown with uncomfortable clarity that a good many of the explanations offered by UFO skeptics were actually nonsense, just as their opponents had been pointing out all along. In 1981, for example, Philip Klass, James Oberg, and Robert Sheaffer claimed that they’d identified all the cases  that Project Blue Book labeled as “unknown.” As it happens, they did nothing of the kind; what they actually did was offer untested ad hoc hypotheses to explain away the unknowns, which is not exactly the same thing. It hardly needs to be said that CIA spyplanes played no part in those explanations, and if the “unknown” cases contained the same proportion of spyplanes as the whole collection, as seems likely, roughly half their explanations are wrong—a point that doesn’t exactly do much to inspire confidence in other claims made on behalf of the debunking crusade.

So it’s not surprising that neither side in the controversy has had the least interest in letting all this new data get in the way of keeping up the old argument. The usual human reaction to cognitive dissonance is to exclude the information that’s causing the dissonance, and that’s precisely what both sides, by and large, have done. As the dissonance builds, to be sure, people on the fringes of both scenes will quiely take their leave, new recruits will become few and far between, and eventually surviving communities of believers and debunkers alike will settle into a common pattern familiar to any of my readers familiar with Spiritualist churches, Marxist parties, or the flotsam left behind by the receding tide of other once-influential movements in American society: little circles of true believers fixated on the disputes of an earlier day, hermetically sealed against the disdain and disinterest of the wider society.

They have the freedom to do that, because the presence or absence of alien saucers in Earth’s skies simply doesn’t have that much of an impact on everyday life. Like Spiritualists or Marxists, believers in alien contact and their debunking foes by and large can avoid paying more than the most cursory attention to the failure of their respective crusades. The believers can take comfort in the fact that even in the presence of overwhelming evidence, it’s notoriously hard to prove a negative; the debunkers can take comfort in the fact that, however embarrassing their logical lapses and rhetorical excesses, at least they were right about the origins of the phenomenon.

That freedom isn’t always available to those on the losing side of history. It’s not that hard to keep the faith if you aren’t having your nose rubbed in the reality of your defeat on a daily basis, but it’s quite another matter to cope with the ongoing, overwhelming disconfirmation of beliefs on which you’ve staked your pride, your values, and your sense of meaning and purpose in life. What would life be like these days for the vocal UFO debunkers of recent decades, say, if the flying saucers had turned out to be alien spacecraft after all, the mass saucer landing on the White House lawn so often and so vainly predicted had finally gotten around to happening, and Philip Klass and his fellow believers in the null hypothesis had to field polite requests on a daily basis to have their four-dimensional holopictures taken by giggling, gray-skinned tourists from Zeta Reticuli?

For a living example of the same process at work, consider the implosion of the New Age scene that’s well under way just now.  In the years before the 2008 crash, as my readers will doubtless remember, tens of thousands of people plunged into real estate speculation with copies of Rhonda Byrne’s meretricious The Secret or similar works of New Age pseudophilosophy clutched in their sweaty hands, convinced that they knew how to make the universe make them rich. I knew a fair number of them—Ashland, Oregon, where I lived at the time, had a large and lucrative New Age scene—and so I had a ringside seat as their pride went before the real estate market’s fall. That was a huge blow to the New Age movement, and it was followed in short order by the self-inflicted humiliation of the grand nonevent of December 21, 2012.

Those of my readers who don’t happen to follow trends in the publishing industry may be interested to know that sales of New Age books peaked in 2007 and have been plunging since then; so has the take from New Age seminars, conferences, and a galaxy of other products hawked under the same label. There hadn’t been any shortage of disconfirmations in the previous history of the New Age scene, to be sure, but these two seem to have been just that little bit more than most of the movement’s adherents can gloss over. No doubt the New Age movement will spawn its share of little circles of true believers—the New Thought movement, which was basically the New Age’s previous incarnation, did exactly that when it imploded at the end of the 1920s, and many of those little circles ended up contributing to the rise of the New Age decades later—but as a major cultural phenomenon, it’s circling the drain.

One of the central themes of this blog, in turn, is that an embarrassment on much this same scale waits for all those who’ve staked their pride, their values, and their sense of meaning and purpose in life on the belief that it’s different this time, that our society somehow got an exemption from the common fate of civilizations. If industrial society ends up following the familiar arc of decline and fall into yet another dark age, if all the proud talk about man’s glorious destiny among the stars turns out to be empty wind, if we don’t even get the consolation prize of a downfall cataclysmic enough to drag the rest of the planet down with us—what then?

I’ve come to think that’s what lies behind the steady drumbeat of emails and comments I field week after week insisting that it’s different this time, that it has to be different this time, and clutching at the most remarkable assortment of straws in an attempt to get me to agree with them that it’s different this time. That increasingly frantic chorus has many sources, but much of it is, I believe, a response to a simple fact:  most of the promises made by authoritative voices in contemporary industrial society about the future we’re supposed to get have turned out to be dead wrong.

Given the number of people who like to insist that every technological wet dream will eventually be fulfilled, it’s worth taking the time to notice just how poorly earlier rounds of promises have measured up to the inflexible yardstick of reality.  Of all the gaudy and glittering technological breakthroughs that have been promised with so much confidence over the last half dozen decades or so, from cities on the Moon and nuclear power too cheap to meter straight through to120-year lifespans and cures for cancer and the common cold, how many have actually panned out?  Precious few.  Meanwhile most measures of American public health are slipping further into Third World territory with every year that passes, our national infrastructure is sinking into a morass of malign neglect, and the rising curve of prosperity that was supposed to give every American acces to middle class amenities has vanished in a haze of financial fraud, economic sclerosis, and official statistics so blatantly faked that only the media pretends to believe them any more.

For many Americans these days, furthermore, those broken promises have precise personal equivalents. A great many of the people who were told by New Age authors that they could get rich easily and painlessly by visualizing abundance while investing in dubious real estate ventures found out the hard way that believing those promises amounted to being handed a one-way nonstop ticket to poverty. A great many of the people who were told by equally respected voices that they would attain financial security by mortgaging their futures for the benefit of a rapacious and corrupt academic industry and its allies in the banking sphere are finding out the same thing about the reassuring and seemingly authoritative claims that they took at face value.  For that matter, I wonder how many American voters feel they benefited noticeably from the hope and change that they were promised by the sock puppet they helped put into the White House in 2008 and 2012.

The promises that framed the housing bubble, the student loan bubble, and the breathtaking cynicism of Obama’s campaign, after all, drew on the same logic and the same assumptions that guided all that grand and vaporous talk about the inevitability of cities on the Moon and commuting by jetpack. They all assumed that history is a one-way street that leads from worse to better, to more, bigger, louder, gaudier, and insisted that of course things would turn out that way. Things haven’t turned out that way, they aren’t turning out that way, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that things aren’t going to turn out that way any time this side of the twelfth of Never. I’ve noted here several times now that if you want to predict the future, paying attention to the reality of ongoing decline pretty reliably gives you better results than trusting that the decline won’t continue in its current course.

 The difficulty with that realization, of course, is precisely that so many people have staked their pride, their values, and their sense of meaning and purpose in life on one or another version of the logic I’ve just sketched out. Admitting that the world is under no compulsion to change in the direction they think it’s supposed to change, that it’s currently changing in a direction that most people find acutely unwelcome, and that there are good reasons to think the much-ballyhooed gains of the recent past were the temporary products of the reckless overuse of irreplaceable energy resources, requires the surrender of a deeply and passionately held vision of time and human possibility. Worse, it lands those who do so in a situation uncomfortably close to the crestfallen former UFO debunkers I joked about earlier in this post, having to cope on an everyday basis with a world full of flying saucers and tourists from the stars.

Beneath the farcical dimensions of that image lies a sobering reality. Human beings can’t live for long without some source of values and some sense of meaning in their lives.  That’s why people respond to cognitive dissonance affecting their most cherished values by shoving away the unwelcome data so forcefully, even in the teeth of the evidence. Resistance to cognitive dissonance has its limits, though, and when people have their existing sources of meaning and value swept away by a sufficiently powerful flood of contradictions, they will seek new sources of meaning and value wherever they can find them—no matter how absurd, dysfunctional, or demonic those new meanings and values might look to an unsympathetic observer.  The mass suicide of the members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult in 1997 offers one measure of just how far astray those quests for new sources of meaning can go; so, on a much larger scale, does the metastatic nightmare of Nazi Germany.

I wrote in an earlier post this month about the implosion of the sense of political legitimacy that’s quietly sawing the props out from underneath the US federal government, and convincing more and more Americans that the people who claim to represent and govern them are a pack of liars and thieves.  So broad and deep a loss of legitimacy is political dynamite, and normally results within no very long a time frame in the collapse of the government in question. There are no guarantees, though, that whatever system replaces a delegitimzed government will be any better.

That same principle applies with equal force to the collapse of the fundamental beliefs of a civilization. In next week’s post, with this in mind, I plan on talking about potential sources of meaning, purpose and value in a world on its way into a global dark age.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Bright Were The Halls Then

Arnold Toynbee, whose magisterial writings on history have been a recurring source of inspiration for this blog, has pointed out an intriguing difference between the way civilizations rise and the way they fall. On the way up, he noted, each civilization tends to diverge not merely from its neighbors but from all other civilizations throughout history.  Its political and religious institutions, its arts and architecture, and all the other details of its daily life take on distinctive forms, so that as it nears maturity, even the briefest glance at one of its creations is often enough to identify its source.

 Once the peak is past and the long road down begins, though, that pattern of divergence shifts into reverse, slowly at first, and then with increasing speed. A curious sort of homogenization takes place: distinctive features are lost, and common patterns emerge in their place.  That doesn’t happen all at once, and different cultural forms lose their distinctive outlines at different rates, but the further down the trajectory of decline and fall a civilization proceeds, the more it resembles every other civilization in decline. By the time that trajectory bottoms out, the resemblance is all but total; compare one postcollapse society to another—the societies of post-Roman Europe, let’s say, with those of post-Mycenean Greece—and it can be hard to believe that dark age societies so similar could have emerged out of the wreckage of civilizations so different.

It’s interesting to speculate about why this reversion to the mean should be so regular a theme in the twilight and afermath of so many civilizations. Still, the recurring patterns of decline and fall have another implication—or, if you will, another application. I’ve noted here and elsewhere that modern industrial society, especially but not only here in North America, is showing all the usual symptoms of a civilization on its way toward history’s compost bin. If we’ve started along the familiar track of decline and fall—and I think a very good case can be made for that hypothesis—it should be possible to map the standard features of the way down onto the details of our current situation, and come up with a fairly accurate sense of the shape of the future ahead of us.

All the caveats raised in last week’s Archdruid Report post deserve repetition here, of course. The part of history that can be guessed in advance is a matter of broad trends and overall patterns, not the sort of specific incidents that make up so much of history as it happens.  Exactly how the pressures bearing down on late industrial America will work out in the day-by-day realities of politics, economics, and society will be determined by the usual interplay of individual choices and pure dumb luck. That said, the broad trends and overall patterns are worth tracking in their own right, and some things that look as though they ought to belong to the realm of the unpredictable—for example, the political and military dynamics of border regions, or the relations among the imperial society’s political class, its increasingly disenfranchised lower classes, and the peoples outside its borders—follow predictable patterns in case after case in history, and show every sign of doing the same thing this time around too.

What I’m suggesting, in fact, is that in a very real sense, it’s possible to map out the history of North America over the next five centuries or so in advance. That’s a sweeping claim, and I’m well aware that the immediate response of at least some of my readers will be to reject the possibility out of hand. I’d like to encourage those who have this reaction to try to keep an open mind. In the posts to come, I plan on illustrating every significant point I make with historical examples from the twilight years of other civilizations, as well as evidence from the current example insofar as that’s available yet.  Thus it should be possible for my readers to follow the argument as it unfolds and see how it hangs together.

Now of course all this presupposes that the lessons of the past actually have some relevance to our future. I’m aware that that’s a controversial proposal these days, but to my mind the controversy says more about the popular idiocies of our time than it does about the facts on the ground. I’ve discussed in previous posts how people in today’s America have taken to using thoughtstoppers such as "but it’s different this time!" to protect themselves from learning anything from history—a habit that no doubt does wonders for their peace of mind today, though it pretty much guarantees them a face-first collision with a brick wall of misery and failure not much further down time’s road. Those who insist on clinging to that habit are not going to find the next year or so of posts here to their taste.

They won’t be the only ones. Among the resources I plan on using to trace out the history of the next five centuries is the current state of the art in the environmental sciences, and that includes the very substantial body of evidence and research on anthropogenic climate change. I’m aware that some people consider that controversial, and of course some very rich corporate interests have invested a lot of money into convincing people that it’s controversial, but I’ve read extensively on all sides of the subject, and the arguments against taking anthropogenic climate change seriously strike me as specious. I don’t propose to debate the matter here, either—there are plenty of forums for that. While I propose to leaven current model-based estimates on climate change and sea level rise with the evidence from paleoclimatology, those who insist that there’s nothing at all the matter with treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer for greenhouse gases are not going to be happy with the posts ahead.

I also propose to discuss industrial civilization’s decline and fall without trying to sugarcoat the harsher dimensions of that process, and that’s going to ruffle yet another set of feathers. Regular readers will recall a post earlier this year discussing the desperate attempts to insist that it won’t be that bad, really it won’t, that were starting to show up in the flurry of criticism each of these weekly essays reliably fields.  That’s even more common now than it was then; nowadays, in fact, whenever one of my posts uses words such as "decline" or "dark age," I can count on being taken to task by critics who insist earnestly that such language is too negative, that of course we’re facing a shift to a different kind of society but I shouldn’t describe it in such disempowering terms, and so on through the whole vocabulary of the obligatory optimism that’s so fashionable among the privileged these days.

I’m pretty sure, as noted in the blog post just cited, that this marks the beginning of a shift by the peak oil community as a whole out of the second of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous five stages, the stage of anger, into the third stage of bargaining. That’s welcome, in that it brings us closer to the point at which people have finished dealing with their own psychological issues and can get to work coping with the predicament of our time, but it’s still as much an evasion of that predicament as denial and anger were. The fall of a civilization is not a pleasant prospect—and that’s what we’re talking about, of course: the decline and fall of industrial civilization, the long passage through a dark age, and the first stirrings of the successor societies that will build on our ruins. That’s how the life cycle of a civilization ends, and it’s the way that ours is ending right now.

What that means in practice is that most of the familiar assumptions people in the industrial world like to make about the future will be stood on their heads in the decades and centuries ahead. Most of the rhetoric being splashed about these days in support of this or that or the other Great Turning that will save us from the consequences of our own actions assumes, as a matter of course, that a majority of people in the United States—or, heaven help us, in the whole industrial world—can and will come together around some broadly accepted set of values and some agreed-upon plan of action to rescue industrial civilization from the rising spiral of crises that surrounds it. My readers may have noticed that things seem to be moving in the opposite direction, and history suggests that they’re quite correct.

Among the standard phenomena of decline and fall, in fact, is the shattering of the collective consensus that gives a growing society the capacity to act together to accomplish much of anything at all.  The schism between the political class and the rest of the population—you can certainly call these "the 1%" and "the 99%" if you wish—is simply the most visible of the fissures that spread through every declining civilization, breaking it into a crazy quilt of dissident fragments pursuing competing ideals and agendas. That process has a predictable endpoint, too:  as the increasingly grotesque misbehavior of the political class loses it whatever respect and loyalty it once received from the rest of society, and the masses abandon their trust in the political institutions of their society, charismatic leaders from outside the political class fill the vacuum, violence becomes the normal arbiter of power, and the rule of law becomes a polite fiction when it isn’t simply abandoned altogether.

The economic sphere of a society in decline undergoes a parallel fragmentation for different reasons. In ages of economic expansion, the labor of the working classes yields enough profit to cover the costs of a more or less complex superstructure, whether that superstructure consists of the pharaohs and priesthoods of ancient Egypt or the bureaucrats and investment bankers of late industrial America. As expansion gives way to contraction, the production of goods and services no longer yields the profit ot once did, but the members of the political class, whose power and wealth depend on the superstructure, are predictably unwilling to lose their privileged status and have the power to keep themselves fed at everyone else’s expense. The reliable result is a squeeze on productive economic activity that drives a declining civilization into one convulsive financial crisis after another, and ends by shredding its capacity to produce even the most necessary goods and services .

In response, people begin dropping out of the economic mainstream altogether, because scrabbling for subsistence on the economic fringes is less futile than trying to get by in a system increasingly rigged against them. Rising taxes, declining government services, and systematic privatization of public goods by the rich compete to alienate more and more people from the established order, and the debasement of the money system in an attempt to make up for faltering tax revenues drives more and more economic activity into forms of exchange that don’t involve money at all.  As the monetary system fails, in turn, economies of scale become impossible to exploit; the economy fragments and simplifies until bare economic subsistence on local resources, occasionally supplemented by plunder, becomes the sole surviving form of economic activity

Taken together, these patterns of political fragmentation and economic unraveling send the political class of a failing civilization on a feet-first journey through the exit doors of history.  The only skills its members have, by and large, are those needed to manipulate the complex political and economic levers of their society, and their power depends entirely on the active loyalty of their subordinates, all the way down the chain of command, and the passive obedience of the rest of society.  The collapse of political institutions strips the political class of any claim to legitimacy, the breakdown of the economic system limits its ability to buy the loyalty of those that it can no longer inspire, the breakdown of the levers of control strips its members of the only actual power they’ve got, and that’s when they find themselves having to compete for followers with the charismatic leaders rising just then from the lower echelons of society. The endgame, far more often than not, comes when the political class tries to hire the rising leaders of the disenfranchised as a source of muscle to control the rest of the populace, and finds out the hard way that it’s the people who carry the weapons, not the ones who think they’re giving the orders, who actually exercise power.

The implosion of the political class has implications that go well beyond a simple change in personnel at the upper levels of society. The political and social fragmentation mentioned earlier applies just as forcefully to the less tangible dimensions of human life—its ideas and ideals, its beliefs and values and cultural practices. As a civilization tips over into decline, its educational and cultural institutions, its arts, literature, sciences, philosophies and religions all become identified with its political class; this isn’t an accident, as the political class generally goes out of its way to exploit all these things for the sake of its own faltering authority and influence. To those outside the political class, in turn, the high culture of the civilization becomes alien and hateful, and when the political class goes down, the cultural resources that it harnessed to its service go down with it.

Sometimes, some of those resources get salvaged by subcultures for their own purposes, as Christian monks and nuns salvaged portions of classical Greek and Roman philosophy and science for the greater glory of God. That’s not guaranteed, though, and even when it does happen, the salvage crew picks and chooses for its own reasons—the survival of classical Greek astronomy in the early medieval West, for example, happened simply because the Church needed to know how to calculate the date of Easter. Where no such motive exists, losses can be total: of the immense corpus of Roman music, the only thing that survives is a fragment of one tune that takes about 25 seconds to play, and there are historical examples in which even the simple trick of literacy got lost during the implosion of a civilization, and had to be imported centuries later from somewhere else.

All these transformations impact the human ecology of a falling civilization—that is, the basic relationships with the natural world on which every human society depends for day to day survival. Most civilizations know perfectly well what has to be done to keep topsoil in place, irrigation water flowing, harvests coming in, and all the other details of human interaction with the environment on a stable footing. The problem is always how to meet the required costs as economic growth ends, contraction sets in, and the ability of central governments to enforce their edicts begins to unravel. The habit of feeding the superstructure at the expense of everything else impacts the environment just as forcefully as it does the working classes:  just as wages drop to starvation levels and keep falling, funding for necessary investments in infrastructure, fallow periods needed for crop rotation, and the other inputs that keep an agricultural system going in a sustainable manner all get cut. 

As a result, topsoil washes away, agricultural hinterlands degrade into deserts or swamps, vital infrastructure collapses from malign neglect, and the ability of the land to support human life starts on the cascading descent that characterizes the end stage of decline—and so, in turn, does population, because human numbers in the last analysis are a dependent variable, not an independent one. Populations don’t grow or shrink because people just up and decide one day to have more or fewer babies; they’re constrained by ecological limits. In an expanding civilization, as its wealth and resource base increases, the population expands as well, since people can afford to have more children, and since more of the children born each year have access to the nutrition and basic health care that let them survive to breeding age themselves.  When growth gives way to decline, population typically keeps rising for another generation or so due to sheer demographic momentum, and then begins to fall.

The consequences can be traced in the history of every collapsing civilization.  As the rural economy implodes due to agricultural failure on top of the more general economic decline, a growing fraction of the population concentrates in urban slum districts, and as public health measures collapse, these turn into incubators for infectious disease. Epidemics are thus a common feature in the history of declining civilizations, and of course war and famine are also significant factors, but an even larger toll is taken by the constant upward pressure exerted on death rates by poverty, malnutrition, crowding, and stress. As deaths outnumber births, population goes into a decline that can easily continue for centuries. It’s far from uncommon for the population of an area in the wake of a civilization to equal less than 10% of the figure it reached at the precollapse peak.

Factor these patterns together, follow them out over the usual one to three centuries of spiralling decline, and you have the standard picture of a dark age society: a mostly deserted countryside of small and scattered villages where subsistence farmers, illiterate and impoverished, struggle to coax fertility back into the depleted topsoil. Their goverments consist of the personal rule of local warlords, who take a share of each year’s harvest in exchange for protection from raiders and rough justice administered in the shade of any convenient tree. Their literature consists of poems, lovingly memorized and chanted to the sound of a simple stringed instrument, recalling the great deeds of the charismatic leaders of a vanished age, and these same poems also contain everything they know about their history. Their health care consists of herbs, a little rough surgery, and incantations cannily used to exploit the placebo effect. Their science—well, I’ll let you imagine that for yourself.

And the legacy of the past? Here’s some of what an anonymous poet in one dark age had to say about the previous civilization:

Bright were the halls then, many the bath-houses,
High the gables, loud the joyful clamor,
Many the meadhalls full of delights
Until mighty Fate overthrew it all.
Wide was the slaughter, the plague-time came,
Death took away all those brave men.
Broken their ramparts, fallen their halls,
The city decayed; those who built it
Fell to the earth. Thus these courts crumble,
And roof-tiles fall from this arch of stone.

Fans of Anglo-Saxon poetry will recognize that as a passage from "The Ruin." If the processes of history follow their normal pattern, they will be chanting poems like this about the ruins of our cities four or five centuries from now. How we’ll get there, and what is likely to happen en route, will be the subject of most of the posts here for the next year or so.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

In a Handful of Dust

All things considered, it’s a good time to think about how much we can know about the future in advance. A hundred years ago last Saturday, as all my European readers know and a few of my American readers might have heard, a young Bosnian man named Gavrilo Prinzip lunged out of a crowd in Sarajevo and emptied a pistol into the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, who were touring that corner of the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian empire they were expected to inherit in due time. Over the summer months that followed, as a direct result of those gunshots, most of the nations of Europe went to war with one another, and the shockwaves set in motion by that war brought a global order centuries old crashing down.

In one sense, none of this was a surprise. Perceptive observers of the European scene had been aware for decades of the likelihood of a head-on crash between the rising power of Germany and the aging and increasingly fragile British Empire. The decade and a half before war actually broke out had seen an increasingly frantic scramble for military alliances that united longtime rivals Britain and France in a political marriage of convenience with the Russian Empire, in the hope of containing Germany’s growing economic and military might. Every major power poured much of its wealth into armaments, sparking an arms race so rapid that the most powerful warship on the planet in 1906, Britain’s mighty HMS Dreadnought, was hopelessly obsolete when war broke out eight years later.

Inquiring minds could read learned treatises by Halford Mackinder and many other scholars, explaining why conflict between Britain and Germany was inevitable; they could also take in serious fictional treatments of the subject such as George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking and Saki’s When William Came, or comic versions such as P.G. Wodehouse’s The Swoop!. Though most military thinkers remained stuck in the Napoleonic mode of conflict chronicled in the pages of Karl von Clausewitz’ On War, those observers of the military scene who paid attention to the events of the American Civil War’s closing campaigns might even have been able to sense something of the trench warfare that would dominate the coming war on the western front.

It’s only fair to remember that a great many prophecies in circulation at that same time turned out to be utterly mistaken. Most of them, however, had a theme in common that regular readers of this blog will find quite familiar: the claim that because of some loudly ballyhooed factor or other, it really was different this time. Thus, for example, plenty of pundits insisted in the popular media that economic globalization had made the world’s economies so interdependent that war between the major powers was no longer possible. Equally, there was no shortage of claims that this or that or the other major technological advance had either rendered war impossible, or guaranteed that a war between the great powers would be over in weeks. Then as now, those who knew their history knew that any claim about the future that begins “It’s different this time” is almost certain to be wrong.

All things considered, it was not exactly difficult in the late spring of 1914, for those who were willing to do so, to peer into the future and see the shadow of a major war between Britain and Germany rising up to meet them. There were, in fact, many people who did just that. To go further and guess how it would happen, though, was quite another matter.  Some people came remarkably close; Bismarck, who was one of the keenest political minds of his time, is said to have commented wearily that the next great European war would probably be set off by some idiotic event in the Balkans.  Still, not even Bismarck could have anticipated the cascade of misjudgments and unintended consequences that sent this particular crisis spinning out of control in a way that half a dozen previous crises had not done.

What’s more, the events that followed the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 quickly flung themselves off the tracks intended for them by the various political leaders and high commands, and carved out a trajectory of their own that nobody anywhere seems to have anticipated. That the Anglo-French alliance would squander its considerable military and economic superiority by refusing to abandon a bad strategy no matter how utterly it failed or how much it cost; that Russia’s immense armies would prove so feeble under pressure; that Germany would combine military genius and political stupidity in so stunningly self-defeating a fashion; that the United States would turn out to be the wild card in the game, coming down decisively on the Allied side just when the war had begun to turn in Germany’s favor—none of that was predicted, or could have been predicted, by anyone.

Nor were the consequences of the war any easier to foresee. On that bright summer day in 1914 when Gavrilo Prinzip burst from the crowd with a pistol in his hand, who could have anticipated the Soviet Union, the Great Depression, the blitzkreig, or the Holocaust? Who would have guessed that the victor in the great struggle between Britain and Germany would turn out to be the United States?  The awareness that Britain and Germany were racing toward a head-on collision did not provide any certain knowledge about how the resulting crash would turn out, or what its consequences would be; all that could be known for sure was that an impact was imminent and the comfortable certainties of the prewar world would not survive the shock.

That dichotomy, between broad patterns that are knowable in advance and specific details that aren’t, is very common in history. It’s possible, for example, that an impartial observer who assessed the state of the Roman Empire in 400 or so could have predicted the collapse of Roman power outside the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. As far as I know, no one did so—the ideological basis of Roman society made the empire’s implosion just as unthinkable then as the end of progress is today—but the possibility was arguably there. Even if an observer had been able to anticipate the overall shape of the Roman and post-Roman future, though, that anticipation wouldn’t have reached as far as the specifics of the collapse, and let’s not even talk about whether our observer might have guessed that the last Emperor of Rome in the west would turn out to be the son of Attila the Hun’s secretary, as in fact he was.

Such reflections are on my mind rather more than usual just now, for reasons that will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. For a variety of reasons, a few of which I’ll summarize in the paragraphs ahead, I think it’s very possible that the United States and the industrial world in general are near the brink of a convusive era of crisis at least as severe as the one that began in the summer of 1914. It seems very likely to me that in the years immediately ahead, a great many of the comfortable certainties of the last half century or so are going to be thrown overboard once and for all, as waves of drastic political, economic, military, social, and ecological change slam into societies that, despite decades of cogent warnings, have done precisely nothing to prepare for them.

I want to review here some of the reasons why I expect an era of crisis to arrive sooner rather than later. One of the most important of those reasons is the twilight of the late (and soon to be loudly lamented) fracking bubble. I’ve noted in previous posts here that the main product of the current fracking industry is neither oil nor gas, but the same sort of dubiously priced financial paper we all got to know and love in the aftermath of last decade’s real estate bubble. These days, the rickety fabric of American finance depends for its survival on a steady flow of hallucinatory wealth, since the production of mere goods and services no longer produces enough profit to support the Brobdingnagian superstructure of the financial industry and its swarm of attendant businesses. These days, too, an increasingly brittle global political order depends for its survival on the pretense that the United States is still the superpower it was decades ago, and all those strident and silly claims that the US is about to morph into a "Saudi America" flush with oil wealth are simply useful evasions that allow the day of reckoning, with its inevitable reshuffling of political and economic status, to be put off a little longer.

Unfortunately for all those involved, the geological realities on which the fracking bubble depends are not showing any particular willingness to cooperate. The downgrading of the Monterey Shale not long ago was just the latest piece of writing on the wall: one more sign that we’re scraping the bottom of the oil barrel under the delusion that this proves the barrel is still full. The fact that most of the companies in the fracking industry are paying their bills by running up debt, since their expenses are considerably greater than their earnings, is another sign of trouble that ought to be very familiar to those of us who witnessed the housing bubble’s go through its cycle of boom and bust.

Bubbles are like empires; if you watch one rise, you can be sure that it’s going to fall. What you don’t know, and can’t know, is when and how. That’s a trap that catches plenty of otherwise savvy investors. They see a bubble get under way, recognize it as a bubble, put money into it under the fond illusion that they can anticipate the bust and pull their money out right before the bottom drops out...and then, like everyone else, they get caught flatfooted by the end of the bubble and lose their shirts. That’s one of the great and usually unlearned lessons of finance: when a bubble gets going, it’s the pseudo-smart money that piles into it—the really smart money heads for the hills.

So it’s anyone’s guess when exactly the fracking bubble is going to pop, and even more uncertain how much damage it’s going to do to what remains of the US economy. A good midrange guess might be that it’ll have roughly the same impact that the popping of the housing bubble had in 2008 and 2009, but it could be well to either side of that estimate. Crucially, though, the damage that it does will be landing on an economy that has never really recovered from the 2008-2009 housing crash, in which actual joblessness (as distinct from heavily manipulated unemployment figures) is at historic levels and a very large number of people are scrambling for survival. At this point, another sharp downturn would make things much worse for a great many millions whose prospects aren’t that good to begin with, and that has implications that cross the border from economics into politics.

Meanwhile, the political scene in the United States is primed for an explosion. One of my regular readers—tip of the archdruid’s hat to Andy Brown—is a research anthropologist who recently spent ten weeks traveling around the United States asking people about their opinions and feelings concerning government. What he found was that, straight across geographical, political, and economic dividing lines, everyone he interviewed described the US government as the corrupt sock puppet of wealthy interests. He noted that he couldn’t recall ever encountering so broad a consensus on any political subject, much less one as explosive as this. 

Recent surveys bear him out. Only 7% of Americans feel any significant confidence in Congress.  Corresponding figures for the presidency and the Supreme Court are 29% and 30% respectively; fewer than a third of Americans, that is, place much trust in the political institutions whose birth we’ll be celebrating in a few days. This marks a tectonic shift of immense importance.  Not that many decades ago, substantial majorities of Americans believed in the essential goodness of the institutions that governed their country. Even those who condemned the individuals running those institutions—and of course that’s always been one of our national sports—routinely phrased those condemnations in terms reflecting a basic faith in the institutions themselves, and in the American experiment as a whole.

Those days are evidently over. The collapse of legitimacy currently under way in the United States is a familiar sight to students of history, who can point to dozens of comparable examples; each of these was followed, after no very long delay, by the collapse of the system of government whose legitimacy in the eyes of its people had gone missing in action. Those of my readers who are curious about such things might find it educational to read a good history of the French or the Russian revolutions, the collapse of the Weimar Republic or the Soviet Union, or any of the other implosions of political authority that have littered the last few centuries with rubble: when a system loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people it claims to lead, the end of that system is on its way.

The mechanics behind the collapse are worth a glance as well. Whether or not political power derives from the consent of the governed, as American political theory insists, it’s unarguably true that political power depends from moment to moment on the consent of the people who do the day-to-day work of governing:  the soldiers, police officers, bureaucrats and clerks whose job is is to see to it that orders from the leadership get carried out. Their obedience is the linchpin on which the survival of a regime rests, and it’s usually also the fault line along which regimes shatter, because these low-ranking and poorly paid functionaries aren’t members of the elite. They’re ordinary working joes and janes, subject to the same cultural pressures as their neighbors, and they generally stop believing in the system they serve about the same time as their neighbors do. That doesn’t stop them from serving it, but it does very reliably make them unwilling to lay down their lives in its defense, and if a viable alternative emerges, they’re rarely slow to jump ship.

Here in America, as a result of the processes just surveyed, we’ve got a society facing a well-known pattern of terminal crisis, with a gridlocked political system that’s lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people it governs, coupled with a baroque and dysfunctional economic system lurching toward another cyclical collapse under the weight of its own hopelessly inefficient management of wealth. This is not a recipe for a comfortable future. The situation has become dire enough that some of the wealthiest beneficiaries of the system—usually the last people to notice what’s happening, until the mob armed with torches and pitchforks shows up at their mansion’s front door—have belatedly noticed that robbing the rest of society blind is not a habit with a long shelf life, and have begun to suggest that if the rich don’t fancy the thought of dangling from lampposts, they might want to consider a change in approach. 

In its own way, this recognition is a promising sign. Similar realizations some seventy years ago put Franklin Roosevelt in the White House and spared the United States the hard choice between civil war and authoritarian rule that so many other countries were facing just then.  Unless a great many more members of our kleptocratic upper class experience the same sort of wake-up call in a hurry, though, the result this time is likely to be far too little and much too late.

Here again, though, a recognition that some kind of crash is coming doesn’t amount to foreknowledge of when it’s going to hit, how it’s going to play out, or what the results will be. If the implosion of the fracking bubble leads to one more round of bailouts for the rich and cutbacks for the poor, we could see the inner cities explode as they did in the long hot summers of the 1960s, setting off the insurgency that was so narrowly avoided in those years, and plunging the nation into a long nightmare of roadside bombs, guerrilla raids, government reprisals, and random drone strikes. If a talented demagogue shows up in the right place and time, we might instead see the rise of a neofascist movement that would feed on the abandoned center of American politics and replace the rusted scraps of America’s democratic institutions with a shiny new dictatorship.

If the federal government’s gridlock stiffens any further toward rigor mortis, for that matter, we could see the states force a constitutional convention that could completely rewrite the terms of our national life, or simply dissolve the Union and allow new regional nations to take shape.  Alternatively, if a great many factors break the right way, and enough people in and out of the corridors of power take the realities of our predicament seriously and unexpectedly grow some gonads—either kind, take your pick—we might just be able to stumble through the crisis years into an era of national retrenchment and reassessment, in which many of the bad habits picked up during America’s century of empire get chucked in history’s compost bin, and some of the ideals that helped inspire this country get a little more attention for a while. That may not be a likely outcome, but I think it’s still barely possible.

All we can do is wait and see what happens, or try to take action in the clear awareness that we can’t know what effects our actions will have. Thinking about that predicament, I find myself remembering lines from the bleak and brilliant poetic testament of the generation that came of age in the aftermath of those gunshots in Sarajevo, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising up to meet you:
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

It’s a crisp metaphor for the challenges of our time, as it was of those in the time about which Eliot wrote. For that matter, the quest to see something other than our own shadows projected forward on the future or backward onto the past has a broader significance for the project of this blog. With next week’s post, I plan on taking that quest a step further. The handful of dust I intend to offer my readers for their contemplation is the broader trajectory of which the impending crisis of the United States is one detail: the descent of industrial civilization over the next few centuries into a deindustrial dark age.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Broken Thread of Culture

There are times when the deindustrial future seems to whisper in the night like a wind blowing through the trees, sending the easy certainties of the present spinning like dead leaves. I had one of those moments recently, courtesy of a news story from 1997 that a reader forwarded me, about the spread of secret stories among homeless children in Florida’s Dade County.  These aren’t your ordinary children’s stories: they’re myths in the making, a bricolage of images from popular religion and folklore torn from their original contexts and pressed into the service of a harsh new vision of reality.

God, according to Dade County’s homeless children, is missing in action; demons stormed Heaven a while back and God hasn’t been seen since. The mother of Christ murdered her son and morphed into the terrifying Bloody Mary, a nightmare being who weeps blood from eyeless sockets and seeks out children to kill them.  Opposing her is a mysterious spirit from the ocean who takes the form of a blue-skinned woman, and who can protect children who know her secret name. The angels, though driven out of Heaven, haven’t given up; they carry on their fight against the demons from a hidden camp in the jungle somewhere outside Miami, guarded by friendly alligators who devour hostile intruders. The spirits of children who die in Dade County’s pervasive gang warfare can go to the camp and join the war against the demons, so long as someone who knows the stories puts a leaf on their graves.

This isn’t the sort of worldview you’d expect from people living in a prosperous, scientifically literate industrial society, but then the children in Dade County’s homeless shelters don’t fit that description in any meaningful sense. They live in conditions indistinguishable from the worst end of the Third World; their lives are defined by poverty, hunger, substance abuse, shattered families, constant uncertainty, and lethal violence dispensed at random. If, as Bruce Sterling suggested, the future is already here, just not evenly distributed yet, they’re the involuntary early adopters of a future very few people want to think about just now, but many of us will experience in the decades ahead, and most of humanity will face in the centuries that follow: a future we may as well call by the time-honored label "dark age."

That label actually dates from before the period most often assigned it these days. Marcus Terentius Varro, who was considered the most erudite Roman scholar of his time, divided up the history known to him into three ages—an age of history, for which there were written records; before that, an age of fable, from which oral traditions survived; and before that, a dark age, about which no one knew anything at all. It’s a simple division but a surprisingly useful one; even in those dark ages where literacy survived as a living tradition, records tend to be extremely sparse and unhelpful, and when records pick up again they tend to be thickly frosted with fable and legend for a good long while thereafter. In a dark age, the thread of collective memory and cultural continuity snaps, the ends are lost, and a new thread must be spun from whatever raw materials happen to be on hand.

There are many other ways to talk about dark ages, and we’ll get to those in later posts, but I want to focus on this aspect for the moment. Before the Greco-Roman world Varro knew, an earlier age of complex, literate civilizations had flourished and then fallen, and the dark age that followed was so severe that in many regions—Greece was one of them—even the trick of written language was lost, and had to be imported from elsewhere centuries afterwards. The dark age following Varro’s time wasn’t quite that extreme, but it was close enough; literacy became a rare attainment, and vast amounts of scientific, technical, and cultural knowledge were lost. To my mind, that discontinuity demands more attention than it’s usually been given.  What is it that snaps the thread that connects past to present, and allows the accumulated knowledge of an entire civilization to fall into oblivion?

A recurring historical process lies behind that failure of transmission, and it’s one that can be seen at work in those homeless children of Dade County, whispering strange stories to one another in the night.

Arnold Toynbee, whose monumental work A Study of History has been a major inspiration to this blog’s project, proposed that civilizations on the way to history’s compost heap always fail in the same general way. The most important factor that makes a rising civilization work, he suggested, is mimesis—the universal human habit by which people imitate the behavior and attitudes of those they admire. As long as the political class of a civilization can inspire admiration and affection from those below it, the civilization thrives, because the shared sense of values and purpose generated by mimesis keeps the pressures of competing class interests from tearing it apart.

Civilizations fail, in turn, because their political classes lose the ability to inspire mimesis, and this happens in turn because members of the elite become so fixated on maintaining their own power and privilege that they stop doing an adequate job of addressing the problems facing their society.  As those problems spin further and further out of control, the political class loses the ability to inspire and settles instead for the ability to dominate. Outside the political class and its hangers-on, in turn, more and more of the population becomes what Toynbee calls an internal proletariat, an increasingly sullen underclass that still provides the political class with its cannon fodder and labor force but no longer sees anything to admire or emulate in those who order it around.

It can be an unsettling experience to read American newspapers or wide-circulation magazines from before 1960 or so with eyes sharpened by Toynbee’s analysis.  Most newspapers included a feature known as the society pages, which chronicled the social and business activities of the well-to-do, and those were read, with a sort of fascinated envy, very far down the social pyramid. Established figures of the political and business world were treated with a degree of effusive respect you won’t find in today’s media, and even those who hoped to shoulder aside this politician or that businessman rarely dreamed of anything more radical than filling the same positions themselves. Nowadays? Watching politicians, businesspeople, and celebrities get dragged down by some wretched scandal or other is this nation’s most popular spectator sport.

That’s what happens when mimesis breaks down. The failure to inspire has disastrous consequences for the political class—when the only things left that motivate people to seek political office are cravings for power or money, you’ve pretty much guaranteed that the only leaders you’ll get are the sort of incompetent hacks who dominate today’s political scene—but I want to concentrate for a moment on the effects on the other end of the spectrum. The failure of the political class to inspire mimesis in the rest of society doesn’t mean that mimesis goes away. The habit of imitation is as universal among humans as it is among other social primates. The question becomes this:  what will inspire mimesis among the internal proletariat? What will they use as the templates for their choices and their lives?

That’s a crucial question, because it’s not just social cohesion that depends on mimesis.  The survival of the collective knowledge of a society—the thread connecting past with present I mentioned earlier—also depends on the innate habit of imitation. In most human societies, children learn most of what they need to know about the world by imitating parents, older siblings, and the like, and in the process the skills and knowledge base of the society is passed on to each new generation. Complex societies like ours do the same thing in a less straightforward way, but the principle is still the same. Back in the day, what motivated so many young people to fiddle with chemistry sets? More often than not, mimesis—the desire to be just like a real scientist, making real discoveries—and that was reasonable in the days when a significant fraction of those young people could expect to grow up to be real scientists.

That still happens, but it’s less and less common these days, and for those who belong to the rapidly expanding underclass of American society—the homeless children in Dade County I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, for example—the sort of mimesis that might lead to a career in science isn’t even an option. A great many of those children won’t live to reach adulthood, and they know it; those who do manage to dodge the stray bullets and the impact of collapsing public health, by and large, will spend their days in the crumbling, crowded warehouse facilities that substitute for schools in this country’s poorer neighborhoods, where maybe half of each graduating high school class comes out functionally illiterate; their chances of getting a decent job of any kind weren’t good even before the global economy started unraveling, and let’s not even talk about those chances now.

When imitating the examples offered by the privileged becomes a dead end, in other words, people find other examples to imitate. That’s one of the core factors, I’m convinced, behind the collapse of the reputation of the sciences in contemporary American society, which is so often bemoaned by scientists and science educators.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson, say, may rhapsodize about the glories of science, but what exactly do those glories have to offer children huddling in an abandoned house in some down-at-heels Miami suburb, whose main concerns are finding ways to get enough to eat and stay out of the way of the latest turf war between the local drug gangs?

Now of course there’s been a standard kneejerk answer to such questions for the last century or so. That answer was that science and technology would eventually create such abundance that everyone in the world would be able to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle and its attendant opportunities.  That same claim can still be heard nowadays, though it’s grown shrill of late after repeated disconfirmation. In point of fact, for the lower 80% of Americans by income, the zenith of prosperity was reached in the third quarter of the 20th century, and it’s all been downhill from there. This isn’t an accident; what the rhetoric of progress through science misses is that the advance of science may have been a necessary condition for the boomtimes of the industrial age, but it was never a sufficient condition in itself.

The other half of the equation was the resource base on which industrial civilization depended. Three centuries ago, as industrialism got under way, it could draw on vast amounts of cheap, concentrated energy in the form of fossil fuels, which had been stored up in the Earth’s crust over the previous half billion years or so. It could draw on equally huge stocks of raw materials of various kinds, and it could also make use of a biosphere whose capacity to absorb pollutants and other environmental insults hadn’t yet been overloaded to the breaking point by human activity. None of those conditions still obtain, and the popular insistence that the economic abundance of the recent past must inevitably be maintained in the absence of the material conditions that made it possible—well, let’s just say that makes a tolerably good example of faith-based thinking.

Thus Tyson is on one side of the schism Toynbee traced out, and the homeless children of Dade County and their peers and soon-to-be-peers elsewhere in America and the world are on the other. He may denounce superstition and praise reason and science until the cows come home, but again, what possible relevance does that have for those children? His promises are for the privileged, not for them; whatever benefits further advances in technology might still have to offer will go to the dwindling circle of those who can still afford such things, not to the poor and desperate.  Of course that simply points out another way of talking about Toynbee’s schism:  Tyson thinks he lives in a progressing society, while the homeless children of Dade County know that they live in a collapsing one.

As the numbers shift toward the far side of that dividing line, and more and more Americans find themselves struggling to cope with a new and unwelcome existence in which talk about progress and prosperity amounts to a bad joke, the failure of mimesis—as in the fallen civilizations of the past—will become a massive social force. If the usual patterns play themselves out, there will be a phase when the  leaders of successful drug gangs, the barbarian warbands of our decline and fall, will attract the same rock-star charisma that clung to Attila, Alaric, Genseric and their peers. The first traces of that process are already visible; just as young Romans in the fourth century adopted the clothes and manners of Visigoths, it’s not unusual to see the children of white families in the suburban upper middle class copying the clothing and culture of inner city gang members.

Eventually, to judge by past examples, this particular mimesis is likely to extend a great deal further than it has so far. It’s when the internal proletariat turns on the failed dominant minority and makes common cause with what Toynbee calls the external proletariat—the people who live just beyond the borders of the falling civilization, who have been shut out from its benefits but burdened with many of its costs, and who will eventually tear the corpse of the civilization to bloody shreds—that civilizations make the harsh transition from decline to fall. That transition hasn’t arrived yet for our civilization, and exactly when it will arrive is by no means a simple question, but the first whispers of its approach are already audible for those who know what to listen for and are willing to hear.

The age of charismatic warlords, though, is an epoch of transition rather than an enduring reality.  The most colorful figures of that age, remade by the workings of the popular imagination, become the focus of folk memories and epic poetry in the ages that follow; Theodoric the Ostrogoth becomes Dietrich von Bern and the war leader Artorius becomes the courtly King Arthur, taking their place alongside Gilgamesh, Arjuna, Achilles, Yoshitsune, and their many equivalents. In their new form as heroes of romance, they have a significant role to play as objects of mimesis, but it tends to be restricted to specific classes, and finds a place within broader patterns of mimesis that draw from other sources.

And those other sources?  What evidence we have—for the early stages of their emergence are rarely well documented—suggests that they begin as strange stories whispered in the night, stories that deliberately devalue the most basic images and assumptions of a dying civilization to find meaning in a world those images and assumptions no longer explain.

Two millennia ago, for example, the classical Greco-Roman world imagined itself seated comfortably at the summit of history.  Religious people in that culture gloried in gods that had reduced primal chaos to permanent order and exercised a calm rulership over the cosmos; those who rejected traditional religion in favor of rationalism—and there was no shortage of those, any more than there is today; it’s a common stage in the life of every civilization—rewrote the same story in secular terms, invoking various philosophical principles of order to fill the role of the gods of Olympus; political thinkers defined history in the same terms, with the Roman Empire standing in for Jupiter Optimus Maximus. It was a very comforting way of thinking about the world, if you happened to be a member of the gradually narrowing circle of those who benefited from the existing order of society.

To thos who formed the nucleus of the Roman Empire’s internal proletariat, though, to slaves and the urban poor, that way of thinking communicated no meaning and offered no hope. The scraps of evidence that survived the fall of the Roman world suggest that a great many different stories got whispered in the darkness, but those stories increasingly came to center around a single narrative—a story in which the God who created everything came down to walk the earth as a man, was condemned by a Roman court as a common criminal, and was nailed to a cross and left hanging there to die.

That’s not the sort of worldview you’d expect from people living in a prosperous, philosophically literate classical society, but then the internal proletariat of the Roman world increasingly didn’t fit that description. They were the involuntary early adopters of the post-Roman future, and they needed stories that would give meaning to lives defined by poverty, brutal injustice, uncertainty, and violence. That’s what they found in Christianity, which denied the most basic assumptions of Greco-Roman culture in order to give value to the lived experience of those for whom the Roman world offered least.

This is what the internal proletariat of every collapsing civilization finds in whatever stories become central to the faith of the dark age to come.  It’s what Egyptians in the last years of the Old Kingdom found by abandoning the official Horus-cult in favor of the worship of Osiris, who walked the earth as a man and suffered a brutal death; it’s what many Indians in the twilight of the Guptas and many Chinese in the aftermath of the Han dynasty found by rejecting their traditional faiths in favor of reverence for the Buddha, who walked away from a royal lifestyle to live by his begging bowl and search for a way to leave the miseries of existence behind forever.  Those and the many more examples like them inspired mimesis among those for whom the official beliefs of their civilizations had become a closed book, and became the core around which new societies emerged.

The stories being whispered from one homeless Dade County child to another probably aren’t the stories that will serve that same function as our civilization follows the familiar trajectory of decline and fall. That’s my guess, at least, though of course I could be wrong. What those whispers in the night seem to be telling me is that the trajectory in question is unfolding in the usual way—that those who benefit least from modern industrial civilization are already finding meaning and hope in narratives that deliberately reject our culture’s traditional faiths and overturn the most fundamental presuppositions of our age. As more and more people find themselves in similar straits, in turn, what are whispers in the night just now will take on greater and greater volume, until they drown out the stories that most people take on faith today.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Stories of our Grandchildren

Over the last six weeks, in what spare time I could find, I’ve glanced back over the last eight years of weekly Archdruid Report posts, trying to get some sense of where this blog has been and where it might head in the months and years to come. In language the Grateful Dead made famous—well, among those of us in a certain generation, at least—it‘s been a long strange trip, crossing terrain not often included in tours of the future of our faltering industrial civilization.

Among those neglected landscapes of the mind, though, the territory that seems most crucial to me involves the role that stories play in shaping our ideas and expectations about the future, and thus our future itself. It’s a surprisingly difficult issue for many people these days to grapple with. Each time I raise it, I can count on hearing from readers who don’t get what I’m saying, usually because they’ve lost track of the distinction between whatever story they’ve gotten stuck in their minds and the far more diffuse and shapeless experiences that the story claims to explain. We tell ourselves stories to explain the world; that much is normal among human beings, and inevitable. The problem creeps in when we lose track of the difference between the narrative map and the experiential territory, and treat (for example) progress as a simple reality, rather than the complex and nuanced set of interpretations we lay over the facts of history to turn them into incidents in a familiar narrative.

During the time just past, I’ve had several reminders of the power of stories to shape the world of human experience, and the way those stories can get out of step with the facts on the ground. I’d like to take a moment to talk about a couple of those just now.

The first reminder made quite a splash in the news media a couple of weeks ago, when the Energy Information Administraton (EIA)—the US bureaucracy that publishes statistics about American energy resources and production—was forced to admit in public that, well, actually, there was only about 4% as much economically extractable oil in the Monterey Shale in California as they’d claimed a few years earlier. Given that this same Monterey Shale was supposed to provide us with around two-thirds of the oil that was allegedly going to turn the United States into a major oil exporter again by 2020, this was not precisely a minor issue. How many other oil shale deposits are facing similar downgrades? That’s a good question, and one which the EIA seems noticeably unwilling to address.

Bertram Gross pointed out a good many years ago that economic indicators were becoming “economic vindicators,” meant to justify government policy instead of providing accurate glimpses into what’s actually happening in the economic sphere. That certainly seems to have been one of the things behind the EIA’s stratospherically overenthusiastic estimates.  Equally, the US government seems to have responded to the current boom in shale with exactly the same sort of mindless cheerleading it displayed during the housing bubble that popped in 2008 and the tech stock bubble that popped in 2001. I trust it hasn’t escaped the attention of my readers that the key product of the shale oil boom hasn’t been oil or natural gas, but bundled shale leases and similar scraps of overpriced paper, sold to gullible investors with the same gaudy promises of fast wealth and starry-eyed disdain for mere economic reality that fed those earlier bubbles, and drove the market crashes that followed.

Still, there’s more going on here than the common or garden variety political puffery and securities fraud that makes up so much of business as usual in America’s years of decline. The question that needs asking is this:  why are investors who watched those two earlier booms go bust, who either lost money in them or saw many others do so, lining up so eagerly to put their nest eggs into shale-oil companies that are losing money quarter after quarter, and can only stay in business by loading on more and more debt?  Why is the same weary drivel about a new economic era of perpetual prosperity being lapped up so uncritically for a third time in fifteen years, when anyone in possession of three functioning neurons ought to be able to recognize it as a rehash of the same failed hype paraded about in previous bubbles, all the way back to the tulip bubble in the 17th-century Netherlands?

That’s not a rhetorical question; it has an answer, and the answer follows from one of the most popular stories of our culture, the story that says that getting rich is normal. From Horatio Alger right on down to the present, our entertainment media have been overloaded with tales about people who rose up out of poverty and became prosperous. What’s more, during the boom times that made up so much of the 20th century, a modest fraction of those tales were true, or at least not obviously false. Especially but not only  in the United States, you could find people who were born poor and died rich. An expanding economy brings that option within reach for some, though—despite the propaganda—never for all.

The story was always at least a little dishonest, as the golden road up from poverty was never normal for more than a certain fraction of the population, and the wealth of the few always depended, as it always does depend in the real world, on the impoverishment of the many. During their 20th century heyday, the world’s industrial societies could pretend that wasn’t the case by the simple expedient of offshoring their poverty to the Third World, and supporting their standards of living at home on the backs of sharecroppers and sweatshop workers overseas. Still, in those same industrial nations, it was possible to ignore that for a while, and to daydream about a future in which every last human being on earth would get to enjoy the benefits of upward mobility in a rapidly expanding economy.

That dream is over and done with. To begin with, the long arc of economic expansion is over; subtract the fake wealth generated by the mass production of unpayable IOUs—the one real growth industry in our economy these days—and we live in an economy in decline, in which real wealth trickles away and  the fraction of the population permanently shut out of the workforce rises year after year.  Downward mobility, not upward mobility, has become a central fact of our time.  The reality has changed, but the story hasn’t, and so investors convinced that their money ought to make them money are easy prey for some grifter in a Brooks Brothers suit who insists that tech stocks, or real estate, or oil shales will inevitably bring them the rising incomes and painless prosperity that the real world no longer provides.

The same sort of mismatch between a popular story and an unwelcome reality defines the second reminder I want to discuss, which popped up during and after the Age of Limits conference late last month in the woods of south central Pennsylvania. That was a very lively and enjoyable event; when Dr. Dennis Meadows, this year’s special guest, noted how pleasant it was to speak to an audience that didn’t have to be convinced of the reality of limits to growth, he spoke for all the presenters and a great many of the attendees as well. For a few days, those of us who attended had the chance to talk about the most important reality of our age—the decline and impending fall of modern industrial civilization—without having to contend minute by minute with the thirty-one flavors of denial so many people use to evade that reality and the responsibilities it brings with it.

That said, there were a few jarring moments, and one of them happened in the interval between my talk on dark ages and Dr. Mark Cochrane’s excellent presentation on the realities of climate change. In the Q&A session after my talk, in response to a question from the audience, I noted how the prestige of science among the general public had taken a beating due to the way that scientific opinions handed down to the public as proven fact so often get retracted after a decade or so, a habit that has caused  many people outside the scientific community to treat all scientific pronouncements with skepticism. I cited several examples of this, and one of them was the way that popular works on climate science in the 1970s and 1980s routinely claimed that the world was on the brink of a new ice age.

Mention the existence of those claims nowadays and you’ll inevitably get denounced as a climate denialist. As my regular readers know, I’m nothing of the kind; I’ve written extensively about the impacts of anthropogenic climate change on the decades and centuries ahead, and my recently published science fiction novel Star’s Reach takes place in a 25th-century America ravaged by the impacts of climate change, in which oranges are grown in what’s now Illinois and Memphis has become a seaport. It’s become popular, for that matter, to insist that those claims of a new ice age never happened; I’d be happy, if anyone’s curious, to cite books published in the 1970s and 1980s for the general public, written by eminent scientists and respected science writers, that described the imminent ice age as a scientifically proven fact, since I have several on my bookshelf.

What I found interesting is that Dr. Cochrane, who is a more than usually careful scholar, jumped to the conclusion that my reference to these popular works of a bygone decade meant that I must be a climate denialist. I corrected him, and he accepted the correction gracefully.  Yet permaculturist and peak oil author Albert Bates then proceeded to miss my point in exactly the same way in his blog post on the event. Bates was present at the discussion, and presumably heard the whole exchange. He’s neither a stupid man nor a malicious one; why, then, so embarrassing and so public a misstatement?

This isn’t a rhetorical question, either; it has an answer, and the answer follows from another of the most popular stories of our culture, the story that says that having the right answer is all you need to get people to listen to you. You’ll find narratives with that theme straight through the popular culture of the last two centuries and more, and it also pervades the rhetoric of science and of scientific history: once the protagonist figures out what’s really going on, whether it’s a murder mystery or the hunt for the molecular structure of DNA, everything falls promptly into place.

Now of course in the real world, things aren’t generally so easy. That was precisely the point I was trying to make in the discussion at the Age of Limits conference:  however convincing the evidence for anthropogenic climate change may be to scientists, it’s failed to convince a great many people outside the scientific enterprise, and one of the things that’s driven that failure is the accelerating decline in the prestige of science in modern industrial society as a whole. Among the roots of that decline, in turn, is the dogmatic tone so often taken when scientists and science writers set out to communicate current scientific opinions to the general public—a tone that differs sharply, it bears remembering, from the far more tentative habits of communication practiced within the scientific community itself.

When climate scientists today insist that they’ve determined conclusively that we’ve entered an age of rising temperatures, I see no reason to doubt them—but they need to recall that many people still remember when writers and speakers with equally impressive scientific credentials insisted with equal vigor that it was just as certain that we’d entered an age of cooling temperatures.  Scientists in the relevant fields know what’s behind the change, but people outside the scientific community don’t; all they see is a flip-flop, and since such flip-flops of scientific opinion have been fairly common in recent decades, members of the general public are by no means as quick as they once were to take scientists at their word. For that matter, when spokespeople for the scientific community insist to the general public nowadays that the flip-flop never took place—that, for example, no reputable scientist or science writer ever claimed to the general public that a new ice age was imminent—those spokespeople simply leave themselves and the scientific community wide open to accusations of bad faith.

We don’t talk about the political dimensions of scientific authority in the modern industrial world. That’s what lies behind the convenient and inaccurate narrative I mentioned earlier, the one that claims that all you have to do to convince people is speak the truth. Question that story, and you have to deal with the mixed motives and tangled cultural politics inseparable from science as a human activity, and above all, you have to discuss the much-vexed relationship between the scientific community and a general public that has become increasingly suspicious of the rhetoric of expertise in contemporary life.

That relationship has dimensions that I don’t think anyone in the scientific community these days has quite grasped. I’ve been told privately by several active online proponents of creationism, for example, that they don’t actually care that much about how the world’s current stock of life forms got there; it’s just that the spluttering Donald Duck frenzy that can reliably be elicited from your common or garden variety rationalist atheist by questioning Darwin’s theory is too entertaining to skip.

Such reflections lead in directions most Americans aren’t willing to go, because they can’t be discussed without raising deeply troubling issues about the conflict between the cult of expertise and what’s left of the traditions of American democracy, and about the social construction of what’s considered real in this as in every other human culture. It’s much easier, and much more comfortable, to insist that the people on the other side of the divide just mentioned are simply stupid and evil, and—as in the example I cited earlier—to force any attempt to talk about the faltering prestige of science in today’s America into a more familiar discourse about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Equally, it’s much easier, and much more comfortable, to insist that the ongoing decline in standards of living here in America is either the fault of the poor or the fault of the rich.  Either evasion makes it possible to ignore all the evidence that suggests that what most Americans think of as a normal standard of living is actually an absurd degree of extravagance, made possibly only briefly by the reckless squandering of the most lavish energy resource our species will ever know.

One of the crucial facts of our age is thus that the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we use to make sense of the events of our lives, have passed their pull date and no longer make sense of the world we experience. The stories our grandchildren use to make sense of their world will be different, from ours, because they will be living in the world that the misguided choices of the last four decades or so will have made—a world that is beginning to take shape around us already, even though most people nowadays are doing their level best not to notice that awkward fact.

Meanwhile, those new stories, the stories of our grandchildren, may already be stirring in the crawlspaces of our collective imagination. In future posts, I’ll be talking about some of the more troubling of those, but this week I’m pleased to have the chance to discuss something a little more cheerful along those lines:  the outcome of this year’s “Space Bats” deindustrial science fiction contest.

Regular readers of this blog will remember that back in the fall of 2011, in the course of discussing the role that the science fiction of previous decades played in shaping our expectations of the future, I put out a call for SF short stories set in a world on the far side of peak oil and climate change. I was delighted by the response: over the five months or so that followed, 63 stories were submitted, and I duly assembled an anthology: After Oil: SF Stories of a Post-Petroleum Future. This January, I announced a second contest of the same sort, with a three-month window in which stories would be accepted.

The response was even more impressive this time around. Over those three months I received 92 story submissions, some from Archdruid Report regulars but many others from people I didn’t know from Robert Heinlein’s off ox, and a remarkably large fraction of them were not only publishable but of very high quality. I despaired of winnowing down the input to one anthology’s worth; fortunately, the publisher came to the rescue by proposing a slight change in plans.

I’m therefore delighted to announce that there will be not one but two new anthologies—one of stories set in the twilight years of our own civilization, one of stories set in the new societies that will rise after the industrial world is a fading memory. The first one, After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis, will include the following stories:

Grant Canterbury’s "Dreaming"
Walt Freitag’s "A Mile a Minute"
Matthew Griffith’s "Promised Land"
Diana Haugh’s "The Big Quiet"
Martin Hensher’s "Crown Prerogative"
J.M. Hughes’ "Byte Heist"
Calvin Jennings’ "A Dead Art Form"
Joseph Nemeth’s "A Break with the Past"
N.N. Scott’s "When It Comes a Gully-Washer"
David Trammel’s "A Fish Tale"
Tony Whelk’s "Al-Kimiya"
Rachel White’s "Story Material"

The second new anthology, After Oil 3: The Years of Rebirth, will include the following stories:

Bill Blondeau’s "The Borax Road Affair"
Phil Harris’ "North of the Wall"
Wylie Harris’ "Dispatches"
Diana Haugh’s "Silver Survivor"
Jason Heppenstall’s "Saga and the Bog People"
J.M. Hughes’ "Dahamri"
Gaianne Jenkins’ "Midwinter Eclipse"
Troy Jones’ "For Our Mushrooms"
Catherine McGuire’s "Singing the World"
David Senti’s "Nuala Thrives"
Al Sevcik’s "Community"
Eric Singletary’s "City of Spirits"

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who contributed a story to the contest; even with a spare anthology to fill, it wasn’t easy to choose among the entries. I’m looking into whether it might be possible to launch a quarterly magazine for deindustrial SF:  there’s clearly an ample supply of good writers who want to tell such stories, and (to judge from sales of the original anthology, and of my deindustrial SF novel Star’s Reach) plenty of people who want to read them as well.

That strikes me as a very good sign. We may not yet be in a position to guess at the stories our grandchildren will tell each other to make sense of the world, but the fact that so many people are already eager to write and read stories about a world on the far side of progress gives me hope that the failed narratives of the past are losing their grip on the collective imagination of our age—and that we may be starting to tell at least a few of the new stories that will make sense of the world after oil.