Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Soothing Books

Every Thursday a thoughtful blog voice publishes an essay discussing the future we might soon be facing, and in tones not alarmist but alarmed, offers sensible suggestions on how to try to cope. The ideas espoused are worth reading not least because they are rational calm and sensible presented as "Green Wizardry" a form of home economics, small agriculture and useful skill building that might help anyone deal with a period of economic decline that appears to be inevitable for all of us. Along with practical advice the Archdruid offers philosophical suggestions about learning to cope with decline. This past week http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/ was talking about the snake oil solutions offered by authors who like to sell books offering hope to the fearful. The Archdruid received one such book.

I’m not going to name the author, the publisher, or even the subject matter, because it could have been any of a hundred books; these days they’re as interchangeable, as forgettable, and as inescapable as American politicians at election time. I’m not sure why it was mailed to me, as it came unannounced; I have to assume that since I blog about the crisis of industrial society, and this book claims to offer a solution to that crisis, the author or the publisher’s marketing department decided that I probably ought to know about it.

You already know the kind of book I’m discussing. It begins with several chapters of potted history that combines an overheated version of the mess we’re in – slanted, naturally, toward those aspects of the mess that the proposed solution is supposed to solve – and an equally colorful account of the prehistory of the solution that traces it back to an exotic and currently fashionable source. It goes on to talk about the proposed solution with the kind of overhyped enthusiasm and rose-tinted assumptions more often associated with the press releases of small tech startups that will be bankrupt within the year. It spares a brief chapter or two to mention criticisms directed at the proposed solution in order to dismiss them out of hand, and then finishes up with a vision of the glorious Utopian future that awaits once the Party’s latest five year plan – er, excuse me, once the proposed solution gets the universal acceptance and ample funding the author hopes to attract.

What isn’t in books of this kind is as important, and as worth mentioning, as what is in them. You won’t find any substantive discussion of the limits of the proposed solution – what dimensions of the crisis of industrial civilization it can’t solve, which bioregions or human societies can’t use it effectively, what resource requirements, environmental effect, or economic factors place constraints on its use, and so on. You won’t find any substantive discussion of the downside of the proposed solution – what burdens it will place on already stressed resource supplies, ecosystems, or economies. Equally, you won’t find meaningful comparisons between the proposed solution and other ways of accomplishing the same thing. Since there are always limits, costs, and alternatives, and a reasoned approach to any kind of decision needs to take these three things into account, their exclusion from such books is not exactly a minor point.

Still, there’s another factor left out in the sort of book I’m discussing: there’s nothing the reader is supposed to do in response. Until recently, if you picked up a book that took some current crisis, painted it in the most apocalyptic terms available, then trotted out some solution dolled up in glowing colors for your approbation, you could safely bet any sum you like to name that the final chapters would try to sell the reader on a product to buy, a service to pay for, a movement to join, or something similar. That sort of snake oil sales pitch is as old as the hills of Iowa and twice as corny, but at least it’s relatively straightforward.

The books I have in mind are anything but straightforward. Like the sales pitches just mentioned, they work overtime making whatever crisis concerns their authors look as dire as possible, and gild their proposed solutions with a glitter of infallibility as glorious as anything a carnival pitchman ever claimed for Doctor Fox’s Genuine Arkansas Snake Oil, but they’re not written to sell. It finally occurred to me, while reading the example mentioned earlier in this essay, what their actual purpose is: they’re written to soothe.

This sort of lullaby literature is very popular just now. Shorter pieces humming the same tunes can be found all through what passes for news media in America these days. The New York Times is particularly fond of such things; my adopted kid sister Sharon Astyk neatly eviscerated one example from that source in a recent blog post, but it’s a safe bet that neither the author nor the intended audience of the piece will notice. They are paying attention to something else.

Especially but not only in America, an awareness is spreading through the crawlspaces of society that the current round of troubles might not just be a speedbump on the road to the shiny future our society’s myths promise us. The sense that something has truly, deeply, desperately gone wrong, right down at the core of the world we’ve created for ourselves, has made itself the background to most of the collective conversations that define our culture. The popularity of soothing narratives about the future just now is, if anything, a marker for just how pervasive that background has become; it’s only when fears are inescapable that efforts at mass reassurance find a market.

Still, there’s another dimension to all this, and it bears directly on the Green Wizards project. One of the things that makes our predicament so difficult for so many people to face just now, and especially for so many Americans, is that every available option for the future includes the certainty of massive impoverishment. The five per cent of us who live in the United States have gotten used to living on a quarter of the world’s energy supply and around a third of its raw materials and industrial products. Even if the world wasn’t facing the rapid depletion of its readily accessible fossil fuel reserves, the equally rapid depletion of many other nonrenewable resources essential to the economy, a global climate tipping toward critical instabilities, a dizzying array of local, regional, and global ecological shifts, and the inevitable feedback loops and synergistic effects these changes are going to cause – and of course the world is facing all these things, and will be facing more of them with every passing year – even if these things weren’t happening, the arrangements that provide Americans with so huge a share of the world’s resources are not going to last much longer.

Those arrangements were the product of a particular set of historical conditions. A century ago, those conditions didn’t exist; back then, it was Britain that received a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, as the beneficiary of an imperial system that directly ruled a quarter of the world’s land surface and also dominated the world’s oceans and, by that fact, most of its international trade. America in those days was a rising power, to be sure, but wasn’t even close to the world’s biggest economy; it had to shelter its industries from the impact of the British colossus by exactly the sort of trade barriers the Chinese are using against us today. (Yes, British economists criticized the US in much the same terms our economists now use to denounce the Chinese; we didn’t listen and neither will they.)

It didn’t take a hundred years for the British empire to be replaced by ours, and it won’t take a hundred years for ours to be replaced by someone else’s. Since we can’t rely on the unusual historical circumstances that allowed Britain to maintain a few shreds of its imperial dignity and some of its privileged economic standing – they were basically able to rent their island out to the American military as an unusually large aircraft carrier conveniently anchored right off the shores of Europe; we don’t have that geopolitical advantage – the aftermath of the American empire is almost certain to be much more like the aftermath of most other empires: economic collapse, massive political dislocations, and a long period of turmoil and contraction until the bottom is reached and recovery can finally start to take shape. The global empire that preceded Britain’s, the Spanish Empire, may provide a more accurate model: that empire imploded in the early nineteenth century in the wake of Britain’s rise to global power, and it wasn’t until the late twentieth century that Spain finally managed to pull itself out of the long nightmare of impoverishment and political chaos that followed.

Again, this is what we would be able to expect if the global economy was entirely based on sustainable resources and the global ecology wasn’t redefining itself in the face of a couple of centuries of fossil fuel-powered abuse. Factor in the impact of energy and resource depletion, climate change, and environmental instability, and the very high likelihood of an increasingly desperate and violent scramble for remaining resources on the way down, and the effects of the end of American empire are likely to be more drastic than anything we’ve seen in the western world since the fall of Rome.

I suspect most Americans these days know this, or at least sense it. These days, when I give a talk on the future to an audience outside the peak oil community, I can begin it like this – “Remember all those scientists a few decades back who warned that if we didn’t make some drastic changes in the very near future, we’d be in deep trouble in the early twenty-first century? Well, guess what.” – and far more often than not, nobody argues. Some of them, at least to judge by the comments and questions I field, are already beginning to try to fit their minds around a future in which nearly all of us are desperately poor by today’s standards; many more are hoping that the worst of it will miss them somehow, or that they’ll be lucky enough to die before it hits – I’ve had people, not all of them elderly, express this latter hope to me in so many words.

Even among those who insist that it won’t happen – those who claim that the center of the Earth really is full of limitless oceans of oil, or that holding hands in a circle and singing “Kum Ba Ya” is a viable strategy for an age of imperial decline and global overshoot, or that the Rapture or the Singularity or 2012 or some other deus ex machina will annihilate history and save them from the future – I have to question how many people actually believe what they claim to believe. I know far too many people who insist the world will end in 2012, for example, who are still putting money into their retirement accounts, and it’s been an open secret for the last decade that the vast majority of people who like to imagine living in a lifeboat ecovillage have not been willing to lift a finger or spend a dime to bring such a project into being.

I’d like to suggest that this is because daydreams about nonexistent lifeboat ecovillages and planet-ending catastrophes two years from now that weren’t actually predicted by the ancient Mayans at all share a common purpose, one that’s also shared by abiotic oil, fusion power, and a dime store’s worth of other lullabies disguised as solutions. Their purpose is to give people something more pleasant to think about than the future that’s breathing down our necks. Yes, planet-ending catastrophes are more pleasant to think about than a couple of centuries of ragged decline, impoverishment, and population loss; if we all get blown to kingdom come in one vast fireball, at least it’s over quickly, and you can probably get some consolation in the few seconds before you’re vaporized by reminding yourself that, after all, it wasn’t your fault.

The irony here, and it’s a rich one, is that potentially workable projects can be turned into lullabies just as effectively as the most dubious daydream. I’m not exactly a fan of the lifeboat ecovillage concept, but it’s always possible that one or more of the handful of voluntary communities that have adopted this role might turn out to have had the right idea all along; it’s the ones that haven’t been built, will never be built, and function primarily as lullaby fodder that are guaranteed to be useless. Equally, some of the other approaches that have become the focus of soothing pronouncements that the solution has been found might actually do some good – and in some cases, quite a bit of good – if they’re treated as projects needing immediate hard work by anyone who wants to see them happen, rather than as props for the fantasy that somebody else is going to do everything that’s necessary.

Green wizardry is vulnerable to exactly the same process. That’s one reason why I don’t intend to present a nice neat all-encompassing plan for saving the world in these essays, or the book for which they form the very rough initial draft. Green wizardry can’t save the world, if by “saving the world” is meant finding some way to allow Americans to keep on living some semblance of a lifestyle that requires a third of the world’s economic activity to support it; but it won’t even accomplish those modest but useful tasks that it could potentially do if it gets treated primarily as raw material for lullabies.

We don’t have time for lullabies. With the United States government openly covering its debts by printing money, food and commodity prices spiking, the number of permanently unemployed people soaring across the industrial world, and China cutting deals with its other major trading partners to price goods and handle exchanges in yuan and local currencies rather than dollars, we face a high risk of serious discontinuities in the relatively near future. That’s why I hope to goad those people already involved in the Green Wizards project to get going; it may be winter here in the northern hemisphere, but that’s a good time to plan those garden beds, order seeds, keep the compost going, and put some tools on the list of holiday presents.

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