Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Retro Future

Is it just me, or has the United States taken yet another great leap forward into the surreal over the last few days? Glancing through the news, I find another round of articles babbling about how fracking has guaranteed America a gaudy future as a petroleum and natural gas exporter. Somehow none of these articles get around to mentioning that the United States is a major net importer of both commodities, that most of the big-name firms in the fracking industry have been losing money at a rate of billions a year since the boom began, and that the pileup of bad loans to fracking firms is pushing the US banking industry into a significant credit crunch, but that’s just par for the course nowadays.

Then there’s the current tempest in the media’s teapot, Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. I’ve come to think of Clinton as the Khloe Kardashian of American politics, since she owed her original fame to the mere fact that she’s related to someone else who once caught the public eye. Since then she’s cycled through various roles because, basically, that’s what Famous People do, and the US presidency is just the next reality-TV gig on her bucket list. I grant that there’s a certain wry amusement to be gained from watching this child of privilege, with the help of her multimillionaire friends, posturing as a champion of the downtrodden, but I trust that none of my readers are under the illusion that this rhetoric will amount to anything more than all that chatter about hope and change eight years ago.

Let us please be real: whoever mumbles the oath of office up there on the podium in 2017, whether it’s Clinton or the interchangeably Bozoesque figures currently piling one by one out of the GOP’s clown car to contend with her, we can count on more of the same: more futile wars, more giveaways to the rich at everyone else’s expense, more erosion of civil liberties, more of all the other things Obama’s cheerleaders insisted back in 2008 he would stop as soon as he got into office.  As Arnold Toynbee pointed out a good many years ago, one of the hallmarks of a nation in decline is that the dominant elite sinks into senility, becoming so heavily invested in failed policies and so insulated from the results of its own actions that nothing short of total disaster will break its deathgrip on the body politic.

While we wait for the disaster in question, though, those of us who aren’t part of the dominant elite and aren’t bamboozled by the spectacle du jour might reasonably consider what we might do about it all. By that, of course, I don’t mean that it’s still possible to save industrial civilization in general, and the United States in particular, from the consequences of their history. That possibility went whistling down the wind a long time ago. Back in 2005, the Hirsch Report showed that any attempt to deal with the impending collision with the hard ecological limits of a finite planet had to get under way at least twenty years before the peak of global conventional petroleum reserves, if there was to be any chance of avoiding massive disruptions. As it happens, 2005 also marked the peak of conventional petroleum production worldwide, which may give you some sense of the scale of the current mess.

Consider, though, what happened in the wake of that announcement. Instead of dealing with the hard realities of our predicament, the industrial world panicked and ran the other way, with the United States well in the lead. Strident claims that ethanol—er, solar—um, biodiesel—okay, wind—well, fracking, then—would provide a cornucopia of cheap energy to replace the world’s rapidly depleting reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas took the place of a serious energy policy, while conservation, the one thing that might have made a difference, was as welcome as garlic aioli at a convention of vampires.

That stunningly self-defeating response had a straightforward cause, which was that everyone except a few of us on the fringes treated the whole matter as though the issue was how the privileged classes of the industrial world could maintain their current lifestyles on some other resource base.  Since that question has no meaningful answer, questions that could have been answered—for example, how do we get through the impending mess with at least some of the achievements of the last three centuries intact?—never got asked at all. At this point, as a result, ten more years have been wasted trying to come up with answers to the wrong question, and most of the  doors that were still open in 2005 have been slammed shut by events since that time.

Fortunately, there are still a few possibilities for constructive action open even this late in the game. More fortunate still, the ones that will likely matter most don’t require Hillary Clinton, or any other member of America’s serenely clueless ruling elite, to do something useful for a change. They depend, rather, on personal action, beginning with individuals, families, and local communities and spiraling outward from there to shape the future on wider and wider scales.

I’ve talked about two of these possibilities at some length in posts here. The first can be summed up simply enough in a cheery sentence:  “Collapse now and avoid the rush!”  In an age of economic contraction—and behind the current facade of hallucinatory paper wealth, we’re already in such an age—nothing is quite so deadly as the attempt to prop up extravagant lifestyles that the real economy of goods and services will no longer support. Those who thrive in such times are those who downshift ahead of the economy, take the resources that would otherwise be wasted on attempts to sustain the unsustainable, and apply them to the costs of transition to less absurd ways of living. The acronym L.E.S.S.—“Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation”—provides a good first approximation of the direction in which such efforts at controlled collapse might usefully move.

The point of this project isn’t limited to its advantages on the personal scale, though these are fairly substantial. It’s been demonstrated over and over again that personal example is far more effective than verbal rhetoric at laying the groundwork for collective change. A great deal of what keeps so many people pinned in the increasingly unsatisfying and unproductive lifestyles sold to them by the media is simply that they can’t imagine a better alternative. Those people who collapse ahead of the rush and demonstrate that it’s entirely possible to have a humane and decent life on a small fraction of the usual American resource footprint are already functioning as early adopters; with every month that passes, I hear from more people—especially young people in their teens and twenties—who are joining them, and helping to build a bridgehead to a world on the far side of the impending crisis.

The second possibility is considerably more complex, and resists summing up so neatly. In a series of posts here  in 2010 and 2011, and then in my book Green Wizardry, I sketched out the toolkit of concepts and approaches that were central to the appropriate technology movement back in the 1970s, where I had my original education in the subjects central to this blog. I argued then, and still believe now, that by whatever combination of genius and sheer dumb luck, the pioneers of that movement managed to stumble across a set of approaches to the work of sustainability that are better suited to the needs of our time than anything that’s been proposed since then.

Among the most important features of what I’ve called the “green wizardry” of appropriate tech is the fact that those who want to put it to work don’t have to wait for the Hillary Clintons of the world to lift a finger. Millions of dollars in government grants and investment funds aren’t necessary, or even particularly useful. From its roots in the Sixties counterculture, the appropriate tech scene inherited a focus on do-it-yourself projects that could be done with hand tools, hard work, and not much money. In an age of economic contraction, that makes even more sense than it did back in the day, and the ability to keep yourself and others warm, dry, fed, and provided with many of the other needs of life without potentially lethal dependencies on today’s baroque technostructures has much to recommend it.

Nor, it has to be said, is appropriate tech limited to those who can afford a farm in the country; many of the most ingenious and useful appropriate tech projects were developed by and for people living in ordinary homes and apartments, with a small backyard or no soil at all available for gardening. The most important feature of appropriate tech, though, is that the core elements of its toolkit—intensive organic gardening and small-scale animal husbandry, homescale solar thermal technologies, energy conservation, and the like—are all things that will still make sense long after the current age of fossil fuel extraction has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Getting these techniques into as many hands as possible now is thus not just a matter of cushioning the impacts of the impending era of crisis; it’s also a way to start building the sustainable world of the future right now.

Those two strategies, collapsing ahead of the rush and exploring the green wizardry of appropriate technology, have been core themes of this blog for quite a while now. There’s a third project, though, that I’ve been exploring in a more abstract context here for a while now, and it’s time to talk about how it can be applied to some of the most critical needs of our time.

In the early days of this blog, I pointed out that technological progress has a feature that’s not always grasped by its critics, much less by those who’ve turned faith in progress into the established religion of our time. Very few new technologies actually meet human needs that weren’t already being met, and so the arrival of a new technology generally leads to the abandonment of an older technology that did the same thing. The difficulty here is that new technologies nowadays are inevitably more dependent on global technostructures, and the increasingly brittle and destructive economic systems that support them, than the technologies they replace. New technologies look more efficient than old ones because more of the work is being done somewhere else, and can therefore be ignored—for now.

This is the basis for what I’ve called the externality trap. As technologies get more complex, that complexity allows more of their costs to be externalized—that is to say, pushed onto someone other than the makers or users of the technology. The pressures of a market economy guarantee that those economic actors who externalize more of their costs will prosper at the expense of those who externalize less. The costs thus externalized, though, don’t go away; they get passed from hand to hand like hot potatoes and finally pile up in the whole systems—the economy, the society, the biosphere itself—that have no voice in economic decisions, but are essential to the prosperity and survival of every economic actor, and sooner or later those whole systems will break down under the burden.  Unlimited technological progress in a market economy thus guarantees the economic, social, and/or environmental destruction of the society that fosters it.

The externality trap isn’t just a theoretical possibility. It’s an everyday reality, especially but not only in the United States and other industrial societies. There are plenty of forces driving the rising spiral of economic, social, and environmental disruption that’s shaking the industrial world right down to its foundations, but among the most important is precisely the unacknowledged impact of externalized costs on the whole systems that support the industrial economy. It’s fashionable these days to insist that increasing technological complexity and integration will somehow tame that rising spiral of crisis, but the externality trap suggests that exactly the opposite is the case—that the more complex and integrated technologies become, the more externalities they will generate. It’s precisely because technological complexity makes it easy to ignore externalized costs that progress becomes its own nemesis.

Yes, I know, suggesting that progress isn’t infallibly beneficent is heresy, and suggesting that progress will necessarily terminate itself with extreme prejudice is heresy twice over. I can’t help that; it so happens that in most declining civilizations, ours included, the things that most need to be said are the things that, by and large, nobody wants to hear. That being the case, I might as well make it three for three and point out that the externality trap is a problem rather than a predicament. The difference, as longtime readers know, is that problems can be solved, while predicaments can only be faced. We don’t have to keep loading an ever-increasing burden of externalized costs on the whole systems that support us—which is to say, we don’t have to keep increasing the complexity and integration of the technologies that we use in our daily lives. We can stop adding to the burden; we can even go the other way.

Now of course suggesting that, even thinking it, is heresy on the grand scale. I’m reminded of a bit of technofluff in the Canadian media a week or so back that claimed to present a radically pessimistic view of the next ten years. Of course it had as much in common with actual pessimism as lite beer has with a pint of good brown ale; the worst thing the author, one Douglas Coupland, is apparently able to imagine is that industrial society will keep on doing what it’s doing now—though the fact that more of what’s happening now apparently counts as radical pessimism these days is an interesting point, and one that deserves further discussion.

The detail of this particular Dystopia Lite that deserves attention here, though, is Coupland’s dogmatic insistence that “you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness.” That’s a common bit of rhetoric out of the mouths of tech geeks these days, to be sure, but it isn’t even remotely true. I know quite a few people who used to be active on social media and have dropped the habit. I know others who used to have allegedly smart phones and went back to ordinary cell phones, or even to a plain land line, because they found that the costs of excess connectedness outweighed the benefits. Technological downshifting is already a rising trend, and there are very good reasons for that fact.

Most people find out at some point in adolescence that there really is such a thing as drinking too much beer. I think a lot of people are slowly realizing that the same thing is true of connectedness, and of the other prominent features of today’s fashionable technologies. One of the data points that gives me confidence in that analysis is the way that people like Coupland angrily dismiss the possibility. Part of his display of soi-disant pessimism is the insistence that within a decade, people who don’t adopt the latest technologies will be dismissed as passive-aggressive control freaks. Now of course that label could be turned the other way just as easily, but the point I want to make here is that nobody gets that bent out of shape about behaviors that are mere theoretical possibilities. Clearly, Coupland and his geek friends are already contending with people who aren’t interested in conforming to the technosphere.

It’s not just geek technologies that are coming in for that kind of rejection, either. These days, in the town where I live, teenagers whose older siblings used to go hotdogging around in cars ten years ago are doing the same thing on bicycles today. Granted, I live in a down-at-the-heels old mill town in the north central Appalachians, but there’s more to it than that. For a lot of these kids, the costs of owning a car outweigh the benefits so drastically that cars aren’t cool any more. One consequence of that shift in cultural fashion is that these same kids aren’t contributing anything like so much to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or to the other externalized costs generated by car ownership.

I’ve written here already about deliberate technological regression as a matter of public policy. Over the last few months, though, it’s become increasingly clear to me that deliberate technological regression as a matter of personal choice is also worth pursuing. Partly this is because the deathgrip of failed policies on the political and economic order of the industrial world, as mentioned earlier, is tight enough that any significant change these days has to start down here at the grassroots level, with individuals, families, and communities, if it’s going to get anywhere at all; partly, it’s because technological regression, like anything else that flies in the face of the media stereotypes of our time, needs the support of personal example in order to get a foothold; partly, it’s because older technologies, being less vulnerable to the impacts of whole-system disruptions, will still be there meeting human needs when the grid goes down, the economy freezes up, or something really does break the internet, and many of them will still be viable when the fossil fuel age is a matter for the history books.

Still, there’s another aspect, and it’s one that the essay by Douglas Coupland mentioned above managed to hit squarely: the high-tech utopia ballyhooed by the first generation or so of internet junkies has turned out in practice to be a good deal less idyllic, and in fact a good deal more dystopian, than its promoters claimed. All the wonderful things we were supposedly going to be able to do turned out in practice to consist of staring at little pictures on glass screens and pushing buttons, and these are not exactly the most interesting activities in the world, you know. The people who are dropping out of social media and ditching their allegedly smart phones for a less connected lifestyle have noticed this.

What’s more, a great many more people—the kids hotdogging on bikes here in Cumberland are among them—are weighing  the costs and benefits of complex technologies with cold eyes, and deciding that an older, simpler technology less dependent on global technosystems is not just more practical, but also, and importantly, more fun. True believers in the transhumanist cyberfuture will doubtless object to that last point, but the deathgrip of failed ideas on societies in decline isn’t limited to the senile elites mentioned toward the beginning of this post; it can also afflict the fashionable intellectuals of the day, and make them proclaim the imminent arrival of the future’s rising waters when the tide’s already turned and is flowing back out to sea.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that it’s entirely possible that we could be heading toward a future in which people will roll their eyes when they think of Twitter, texting, 24/7 connectivity, and the rest of today’s overblown technofetishism—like, dude, all that stuff is so twenty-teens! Meanwhile, those of us who adopt the technologies and habits of earlier eras, whether that adoption is motivated by mere boredom with little glass screens or by some more serious set of motives, may actually be on the cutting edge: the early adopters of the Retro Future. We’ll talk about that more in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Burden of Denial

It occurred to me the other day that quite a few of the odder features of contemporary American culture make perfect sense if you assume that everybody knows exactly what’s wrong and what’s coming as our society rushes, pedal to the metal, toward its face-first collision with the brick wall of the future. It’s not that they don’t get it; they get it all too clearly, and they just wish that those of us on the fringes would quit reminding them of the imminent impact, so they can spend whatever time they’ve got left in as close to a state of blissful indifference as they can possibly manage.  
 
I grant that this realization probably had a lot to do with the context in which it came to me. I was sitting in a restaurant, as it happens, with a vanload of fellow Freemasons.  We’d carpooled down to Baltimore, some of us to receive one of the higher degrees of Masonry and the rest to help with the ritual work, and we stopped for dinner on the way back home. I’ll spare you the name of the place we went; it was one of those currently fashionable beer-and-burger joints where the waitresses have all been outfitted with skirts almost long enough to cover their underwear, bare midriffs, and the sort of push-up bras that made them look uncomfortably like inflatable dolls—an impression that their too obviously scripted jiggle-and-smile routines did nothing to dispell.

Still, that wasn’t the thing that made the restaurant memorable. It was the fact that every wall in the place had television screens on it. By this I don’t mean that there was one screen per wall; I mean that they were lined up side by side right next to each other, covering the upper part of every single wall in the place, so that you couldn’t raise your eyes above head level without looking at one. They were all over the interior partitions of the place, too. There must have been forty of them in one not too large restaurant, each one blaring something different into the thick air, while loud syrupy music spattered down on us from speakers on the ceiling and the waitresses smiled mirthlessly and went through their routines. My burger and fries were tolerably good, and two tall glasses of Guinness will do much to ameliorate even so charmless a situation; still, I was glad to get back on the road.

The thing I’d point out is that all this is quite recent. Not that many years ago, it was tolerably rare to see a TV screen in an American restaurant, and even those bars that had a television on the premises for the sake of football season generally had the grace to leave the thing off the rest of the time. Within the last decade, I’ve watched televisions sprout in restaurants and pubs I used to enjoy, for all the world like buboes on the body of a plague victim: first one screen, then several, then one on each wall, then metastatizing across the remaining space. Meanwhile, along the same lines, people who used to go to coffee shops and the like to read the papers, talk with other patrons, or do anything else you care to name are now sitting in the same coffee shops in total silence, hunched over their allegedly smart phones like so many scowling gargoyles on the walls of a medieval cathedral.

Yes, there were people in the restaurant crouched in the gargoyle pose over their allegedly smart phones, too, and that probably also had something to do with my realization that evening.  It so happens that the evening before my Baltimore trip, I’d recorded a podcast interview with Chris Martenson on his Peak Prosperity show, and he’d described to me a curious response he’d been fielding from people who attended his talks on the end of the industrial age and the unwelcome consequences thereof. He called it “the iPhone moment”—the point at which any number of people in the audience pulled that particular technological toy out of their jacket pockets and waved it at him, insisting that its mere existence somehow disproved everything he was saying.

You’ve got to admit, as modern superstitions go, this one is pretty spectacular.  Let’s take a moment to look at it rationally. Do iPhones produce energy? Nope. Will they refill our rapidly depleting oil and gas wells, restock the ravaged oceans with fish, or restore the vanishing topsoil from the world’s  fields? Of course not. Will they suck carbon dioxide from the sky, get rid of the vast mats of floating plastic that clog the seas, or do something about the steadily increasing stockpiles of nuclear waste that are going to sicken and kill people for the next quarter of a million years unless the waste gets put someplace safe—if there is anywhere safe to put it at all? Not a chance. As a response to any of the predicaments that are driving the crisis of our age, iPhones are at best irrelevant.  Since they consume energy and resources, and the sprawling technosystems that make them function consume energy and resources at a rate orders of magnitude greater, they’re part of the problem, not any sort of a solution

Now of course the people waving their iPhones at Chris Martenson aren’t thinking about any of these things. A good case could be made that they’re not actually thinking at all. Their reasoning, if you want to call it that, seems to be that the existence of iPhones proves that progress is still happening, and this in turn somehow proves that progress will inevitably bail us out from the impacts of every one of the predicaments we face. To call this magical thinking is an insult to honest sorcerers; rather, it’s another example of the arbitrary linkage of verbal noises to emotional reactions that all too often passes for thinking in today’s America. Readers of classic science fiction may find all this weirdly reminiscent of a scene from some edgily updated version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau: “Not to doubt Progress: that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

Seen from a certain perspective, though, there’s a definite if unmentionable logic to “the iPhone moment,” and it has much in common with the metastatic spread of television screens across pubs and restaurants in recent years. These allegedly smart phones don’t do anything to fix the rising spiral of problems besetting industrial civilization, but they make it easier for people to distract themselves from those problems for a little while longer. That, I’d like to suggest, is also what’s driving the metastasis of television screens in the places that people used to go to enjoy a meal, a beer, or a cup of coffee and each other’s company. These days, that latter’s too risky; somebody might mention a friend who lost his job and can’t get another one, a spouse who gets sicker with each overpriced prescription the medical industry pushes on her, a kid who didn’t come back from Afghanistan, or the like, and then it’s right back to the reality that everyone’s trying to avoid. It’s much easier to sit there in silence staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen, from which all such troubles have been excluded.

Of course that habit has its own downsides. To begin with, those who are busy staring at the screens have to know, on some level, that sooner or later it’s going to be their turn to lose their jobs, or have their health permanently wrecked by the side effects their doctors didn’t get around to telling them about, or have their kids fail to come back from whatever America’s war du jour happens to be just then, or the like. That’s why so many people these days put so much effort into insisting as loudly as possible that the poor and vulnerable are to blame for their plight. The people who say this know perfectly well that it’s not true, but repeating such claims over and over again is the only defense they’ve got against the bitter awareness that their jobs, their health, and their lives or those of the people they care about could all too easily be next on the chopping block.

What makes this all the more difficult for most Americans to face is that none of these events are happening in a vacuum.  They’re part of a broader process, the decline and fall of modern industrial society in general and the United States of America in particular. Outside the narrowing circles of the well-to-do, standards of living for most Americans have been declining since the 1970s, along with standards of education, public health, and most of the other things that make for a prosperous and stable society. Today, a nation that once put human bootprints on the Moon can’t afford to maintain its roads and bridges or keep its cities from falling into ruin. Hiding from that reality in an imaginary world projected onto glass screens may be comforting in the short term; the mere fact that realities don’t go away just because they’re ignored does nothing to make this choice any less tempting.

What’s more, the world into which that broader process of decline is bringing us is not one in which staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen will count for much. Quite the contrary, it promises to be a world in which raw survival, among other things, will depend on having achieved at least a basic mastery of one or more of a very different range of skills. There’s no particular mystery about those latter skills; they were, in point of fact, the standard set of basic human survival skills for thousands of years before those glass screens were invented, and they’ll still be in common use when the last of the glass screens has weathered away into sand; but they have to be learned and practiced before they’re needed, and there may not be all that much time left to learn and practice them before hard necessity comes knocking at the door.

I think a great many people who claim that everything’s fine are perfectly aware of all this. They know what the score is; it’s doing something about it that’s the difficulty, because taking meaningful action at this very late stage of the game runs headlong into at least two massive obstacles. One of them is practical in nature, the other psychological, and human nature being what it is, the psychological dimension is far and away the most difficult of the two.

Let’s deal with the practicalities first. The non-negotiable foundation of any meaningful response to the crisis of our time, as I’ve pointed out more than once here, can be summed up conveniently with the acronym L.E.S.S.—that is, Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation. We are all going to have much less of these things at our disposal in the future.  Using less of them now frees up time, money, and other resources that can be used to get ready for the inevitable transformations. It also makes for decreased dependence on systems and resources that in many cases are already beginning to fail, and in any case will not be there indefinitely in a future of hard limits and inevitable scarcities.

On the other hand, using L.E.S.S. flies in the face of two powerful forces in contemporary culture. The first is the ongoing barrage of advertising meant to convince people that they can’t possibly be happy without the latest time-, energy-, and resource-wasting trinket that corporate interests want to push on them. The second is the stark shivering terror that seizes most Americans at the thought that anybody might think that they’re poorer than they actually are. Americans like to think of themselves as proud individualists, but like so many elements of the American self-image, that’s an absurd fiction; these days, as a rule, Americans are meek conformists who shudder with horror at the thought that they might be caught straying in the least particular from whatever other people expect of them.

That’s what lies behind the horrified response that comes up the moment someone suggests that using L.E.S.S. might be a meaningful part of our response to the crises of our age. When people go around insisting that not buying into the latest overhyped and overpriced lump of technogarbage is tantamount to going back to the caves—and yes, I field such claims quite regularly—you can tell that what’s going on in their minds has nothing to do with the realities of the situation and everything to do with stark unreasoning fear. Point out that a mere thirty years ago, people got along just fine without email and the internet, and you’re likely to get an even more frantic and abusive reaction, precisely because your listener knows you’re right and can’t deal with the implications.

This is where we get into the psychological dimension. What James Howard Kunstler has usefully termed the psychology of previous investment is a massive cultural force in today’s America. The predicaments we face today are in very large part the product of a long series of really bad decisions that were made over the last four decades or so. Most Americans, even those who had little to do with making those decisions, enthusiastically applauded them, and treated those who didn’t with no small amount of abuse and contempt. Admitting just how misguided those decisions turned out to be thus requires a willingness to eat crow that isn’t exactly common among Americans these days. Thus there’s a strong temptation to double down on the bad decisions, wave those iPhones in the air, and put a few more television screens on the walls to keep the cognitive dissonance at bay for a little while longer.

That temptation isn’t an abstract thing. It rises out of the raw emotional anguish woven throughout America’s attempt to avoid looking at the future it’s made for itself. The intensity of that anguish can be measured most precisely, I think, in one small but telling point: the number of people whose final response to the lengthening shadow of the future is, “I hope I’ll be dead before it happens.”

Think about those words for a moment. It used to be absolutely standard, and not only in America, for people of every social class below the very rich to work hard, save money, and do without so that their children could have a better life than they had. That parents could say to their own children, “I got mine, Jack; too bad your lives are going to suck,” belonged in the pages of lurid dime novels, not in everyday life. Yet that’s exactly what the words “I hope I’ll be dead before it happens” imply.  The destiny that’s overtaking the industrial world isn’t something imposed from outside; it’s not an act of God or nature or callous fate; rather, it’s unfolding with mathematical exactness from the behavior of those who benefit from the existing order of things.  It could be ameliorated significantly if those same beneficiaries were to let go of the absurd extravagance that characterizes what passes for a normal life in the modern industrial world these days—it’s just that the act of letting go involves an emotional price that few people are willing to pay.

Thus I don’t think that anyone says “I hope I’ll be dead before it happens” lightly. I don’t think the people who are consigning their own children and grandchildren to a ghastly future, and placing their last scrap of hope on the prospect that they themselves won’t live to see that future arrive, are making that choice out of heartlessness or malice. The frantic concentration on glass screens, the bizarre attempts to banish unwelcome realities by waving iPhones in their faces, and the other weird behavior patterns that surround American society’s nonresponse to its impending future, are signs of the enormous strain that so many Americans these days are under as they try to keep pretending that nothing is wrong in the teeth of the facts.

Denying a reality that’s staring you in the face is an immensely stressful process, and the stress gets worse as the number of things that have to be excluded from awareness mounts up. These days, that list is getting increasingly long. Look away from the pictures on the glass screens, and the United States is visibly a nation in rapid decline: its cities collapsing, its infrastructure succumbing to decades of malign neglect, its politics mired in corruption and permanent gridlock, its society frayed to breaking, and the natural systems that support its existence passing one tipping point after another and lurching through chaotic transitions.

Oklahoma has passed California as the most seismically active state in the Union as countless gallons of fracking fluid pumped into deep disposal wells remind us that nothing ever really “goes away.” It’s no wonder that so many shrill voices these days are insisting that nothing is wrong, or that it’s all the fault of some scapegoat or other, or that Jesus or the Space Brothers or somebody will bail us out any day now, or that we’re all going to be wiped out shortly by some colorful Hollywood cataclysm that, please note, is never our fault.

There is, of course, another option.

Over the years since this blog first began to attract an audience, I’ve spoken to quite a few people who broke themselves out of that trap, or were popped out of it willy-nilly by some moment of experience just that little bit too forceful to yield to the exclusionary pressure; many of them have talked about how the initial burst of terror—no, no, you can’t say that, you can’t think that!—gave way to an immense feeling of release and freedom, as the burden of keeping up the pretense dropped away and left them able to face the world in front of them at last.

I suspect, for what it’s worth, that a great many more people are going to be passing through that transformative experience in the years immediately ahead. A majority? Almost certainly not; to judge by historical precedents, the worse things get, the more effort will go into the pretense that nothing is wrong at all, and the majority will cling like grim death to that pretense until it drags them under. That said, a substantial minority might make a different choice: to let go of the burden of denial soon enough to matter, to let themselves plunge through those moments of terror and freedom, and to haul themselves up, shaken but alive, onto the unfamiliar shores of the future.

When they get there, there will be plenty of work for them to do. I’ve discussed some of the options in previous posts on this blog, but there’s at least one that hasn’t gotten a detailed examination yet, and it’s one that I’ve come to think may be of crucial importance in the decades ahead. We’ll talk about that next week.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Atlantis Won't Sink, Experts Agree

If you’re like most Atlanteans these days, you’ve heard all sorts of unnerving claims about the future of our continent. Some people are even saying that recent earth tremors are harbingers of a cataclysm that will plunge Atlantis to the bottom of the sea. Those old prophecies from the sacred scrolls of the Sun Temple have had the dust blown off them again, adding to the stew of rumors.

So is there anything to it? Should you be worried about the future of Atlantis?

Not according to the experts. I visited some of the most widely respected hierarchs here in the City of the Golden Gates yesterday to ask them about the rumors, and they assured me that there’s no reason to take the latest round of alarmist claims at all seriously.
 
***
My first stop was the temple complex of black orichalcum just outside the Palace of the Ten Kings, where Nacil Buper, Grand Priestess of the Temple of Night, took time out of her busy schedule to meet with me. I asked her what she thought about the rumors of imminent catastrophe. “Complete and utter nonsense,” she replied briskly. “There are always people who want to insist that the end is nigh, and they can always find something to use to justify that sort of thing. Remember a few years ago, when everyone was running around insisting that the end of the Forty-First Grand Cycle of Time was going to bring the destruction of the world? This is more of the same silliness.”

Just at that moment, the floor shook beneath us, and I asked her about the earth tremors, pointing out that those seem to be more frequent than they were just a few years back.

“Atlantis has always had earthquakes,” the Grand Priestess reminded me, gesturing with her scepter of human bone.  “There are natural cycles affecting their frequency, and there’s no proof that they’re more frequent because of anything human beings are doing. In fact, I’m far from convinced that they’re any more frequent than they used to be. There are serious questions about whether the priests of the Sun Temple have been fiddling with their data, you know.”

“And the claim from those old prophecies that offering human sacrifices to Mu-Elortep, Lord of Evil, might have something to do with it?” I asked. 

“That’s the most outrageous kind of nonsense,” the Grand Priestess replied. “Atlanteans have been worshipping the Lord of Evil for more than a century and a half. It’s one of the foundations of our society and our way of life, and we should be increasing the number of offerings to Mu-Elortep as rapidly as we can, not listening to crazies from the fringe who insist that there’s something wrong with slaughtering people for the greater glory of the Lord of Evil. We can’t do without Mu-Elortep, not if we’re going to restore Atlantis to full prosperity and its rightful place in the world order, and if that means sacrifices have to be made—and it does—then sacrifices need to be made.”

She leaned forward confidentially, and her necklace of infant’s skulls rattled. “You know as well as I do that all this is just another attempt by the Priests of the Sun to dodge their responsibility for their own bad policies. Nobody would care in the least about all these crazy rumors of imminent doom if the Sun Priest Erogla hadn’t made such a fuss about the old prophecies in the scrolls of the Sun Temple a few years back. The Sun Temple’s the real problem we face. Fortunately, though, we of the Temple of Night have a majority in the Council of the Ten Kings now. We’re working on legislation right now to eradicate poverty in Atlantis by offering up the poor to Mu-Elortep in one grand bonfire. Once that’s done, I’m convinced, Atlantis will be on the road to a full recovery.”
 
***
After my conversation with the Grand Priestess, I went uphill to the foot of the Sacred Mountain, where the Sun Temple rises above the golden-roofed palaces of the Patricians of Atlantis. I had made an appointment to see Tarc Omed, the Hierophant of the Priests of the Sun; he met me in his private chamber, and had his servants pour us purple wine from Valusia as we talked.

“I know the kind of thing you must have heard from the Temple of Night,” the Hierophant said wearily. “It’s all our fault the economy’s in trouble. Everything’s our fault. That’s how they avoid responsibility for the consequences of the policies they’ve been pursuing for decades now.”

I asked him what he thought of Nacil Buper’s claim that offering up the poor as human sacrifices would solve all the problems Atlantis faces these days.

“Look,” he said, “everybody knows that we’ve got to wean ourselves off making human sacrifices to the Lord of Evil one of these days. There’s no way we can keep that up indefinitely, and it’s already causing measurable problems. That’s why we’re proposing increased funding for more sustainable forms of worship directed toward other deities, so we can move step by step to a society that doesn’t have to engage in human sacrifice or deal with Mu-Elortep at all.”

And the ground tremors? Do they have anything to do with the sacrifices?

“That’s a good question. It’s hard to say whether any particular burst of tremors is being caused by the prophesied curse, you know, but that’s no reason for complacency.”

A tremor shook the room, and we both steadied our golden goblets of wine on the table. “Doesn’t that lend support to the rumors that Atlantis might sink soon?” I asked.

Tarc Omed looked weary again, and leaned back in his great chair of gold and ivory. “We have to be realistic,” he said. “Right now, Atlantean society depends on human sacrifice, and transitioning away from that isn’t something we can do overnight. We need to get those more sustainable forms of worship up and running first, and that can’t be done without negotiated compromises and the support of as many stakeholders as possible. Alarmism doesn’t further that.”

I thought of one of the things Nacil Buper had said. “But aren’t the prophecies of doom we’re discussing right there in the sacred scrolls of the Sun Temple?”

“We don’t consider that relevant just now,” the Hierophant told me firmly. “What matters right at the moment is to build a coalition strong enough to take back a majority in the Council of the Ten Kings, stop the Temple of Night’s crazy plan to sacrifice all of the poor to Mu-Elortep, and make sure that human sacrifices are conducted in as painless and sanitary a fashion as possible and increased only at the rate that’s really necessary, while we work toward phasing out human sacrifice altogether. Of course we can’t continue on our current path, but I have faith that Atlanteans can and will work together to stop any sort of worst-case scenario from happening.”
 
***
From the Temple of the Sun I walked out of the patrician district, into one of the working class neighborhoods overlooking the Old Harbor. The ground shook beneath my feet a couple of times as I went. People working in the taverns and shops looked up at the Sacred Mountain each time, and then went back to their labor. It made me feel good to know that their confidence was shared by both the hierarchs I’d just interviewed.

I decided to do some person-in-the-street interviews for the sake of local color, and stepped into one of the taverns. Introducing myself to the patrons as a reporter, I asked what they thought about the rumors of disaster and the ongoing earth tremors.

“Oh, I’m sure the Priests of the Sun will think of something,” one patron said. I wrote that down on my wax tablet.

“Yeah,” agreed another. “How long have these prophecies been around? And Atlantis is still above water, isn’t it? I’m not worried.”

“I used to believe that stuff back in the day,” said a third patron. “You know, you buy into all kinds of silly things when you’re young and gullible, then grow out of it once it’s time to settle down and deal with the real world.  I sure did.”

That got nods and murmurs of approval all around. “I honestly think a lot of the people who are spreading these rumors actually want Atlantis to sink,” the third patron went on. “All this obsessing about those old prophecies and how awful human sacrifice is—I mean, can we get real, please?”

“You can say that again,” said the second patron. “I bet they do want Atlantis to sink. I bet they’re actually Lemurian sympathizers.”

The third patron turned to look at him.  “You know, that would make a lot of sense—”

Just then another tremor, a really strong one, shook the tavern. The whole room went dead silent for a moment. As the tremor died down, everybody started talking loudly all at once. I said my goodbyes and headed for the door.

As I stopped outside to put my wax tablet into the scribe’s case on my belt, one of the other patrons—a woman who hadn’t said anything—came through the door after me. “If you’re looking for a different point of view,” she told me, “you ought to go down to the Sea Temple. They’ll give you an earful.”

I thanked her, and started downhill toward the Old Harbor.
 
***
I’d never been to the Sea Temple before; I don’t think most Atlanteans ever go there, though it’s been right there next to the Old Harbor since time out of mind. When I got there, the big doors facing the harbor were wide open, but the place seemed empty; the only sounds were the flapping of the big blue banners above the temple and the cries of sea birds up overhead.

As another tremor rattled the city, I walked in through the open doors. I didn’t see anyone at first, but after a few moments a woman in the blue robes of a Sea Priestess came out of the sanctuary further inside and hurried toward me. She had a basket of scrolls in her arms.

I introduced myself, explained that I was a journalist, and asked if she minded answering some questions.

“Not if you don’t mind walking with me to the harbor,” she said. “I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

“Sure,” I told her. “So what do you think about all these scary rumors? Do you really think Atlantis could end up underwater?”

We left the temple and started across the plaza outside, toward the harbor. “Have you read the prophecies of Emor Fobulc?” she asked me.

“Can’t say I have.”

“They predicted everything that’s happened: the rise of the cult of Mu-Elortep, the sacrifices, the earth tremors, and now the Sign.”

“The what?”

“When’s the last time you looked at the top of the Sacred Mountain?”

I stopped and looked right then. There was a plume of smoke rising from the great rounded peak. After a moment, I hurried to catch up to her.

“That’s the Sign,” she told me. “It means that the fires of Under-Earth have awakened and Atlantis will soon be destroyed.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

I thought about it for a moment as we walked, and the ground shook beneath our feet. “There could be plenty of other explanations for that smoke, you know.”

The priestess looked at me for a long moment. “No doubt,” she said dryly. 

By then we were near the edge of the quay, and half a dozen people came hurrying down the gangplank from a ship that was tied up there, an old-fashioned sailing vessel with a single mast and the prow carved to look like a swan. One of them, a younger priestess, bowed, took the basket of scrolls, and hurried back on board the ship. Another, who was dressed like a mariner, bowed too, and said to the priestess I’d spoken with, “Is there anything else, Great Lady?”

“Nothing,” she said. “We should go.” She turned to me. “You may come with us if you wish.”

“I need to have this story back to the pressroom before things shut down this afternoon,” I told her. “Are you going to be coming back within two hours or so?”

I got another of her long silent looks. “No,” she said. “We’ll be much longer than that.”

“Sorry, then—I hate to turn down a cruise, but work is work.”

She didn’t have anything to say to that, and the others more or less bundled her up the gangplank onto the ship. A couple of sailors untied the cables holding the ship against the quay and then climbed on board before it drifted away. A few minutes later the ship was pulling out into the Old Harbor; I could hear the oarsmen belowdecks singing one of their chanteys while the sailors climbed aloft and got the sail unfurled and set to the breeze.

After a few more minutes, I turned and started back up the hill toward the middle of town. As I climbed the slope, I could see more and more of the City of the Golden Gates around me in the afternoon sun: the Palace of the Ten Kings with the Temple of Night beside it, the Sun Temple and the golden roofs of the patricians’ palaces higher up the slope. The ground was shaking pretty much nonstop, but I barely noticed it, I’d gotten so used to the tremors.

The view got better as I climbed. Below, the Old Harbor spread out to one side and the New Harbor to the other. Next to the New Harbor was the charnel ground of Elah-Slio, where smoke was rising from the altars and long lines of victims were being driven forward with whips to be offered up as sacrifices to Mu-Elortep; off the other way, beyond the Old Harbor, I spotted twenty or so sails in the middle distance, heading away from Atlantis, and the ship with the priestess on it hurrying to join them.

That’s when it occurred to me that the Sea Priestess couldn’t have been serious when she said that Atlantis would soon be destroyed. Surely, if the prophecies were true, the Sea Priestesses would have had more important things to do than go on some kind of long vacation cruise. I laughed at how gullible I’d been there for a moment, and kept climbing the hill into the sunlight.

Above the Sacred Mountain, the cloud of smoke had gotten much bigger, and it looked as though some kind of red glow was reflecting off the bottom of it. I wondered what that meant, but figured I’d find out from the news soon enough. It certainly made me feel good to know that there was no reason whatever to worry about the far-fetched notion that Atlantis might end up at the bottom of the sea.


(Note: due to a date-linked transtemporal anomaly, this week’s planned Archdruid Report post got switched with a passage from the Swenyliad, an Atlantean chronicle dating from 9613 BCE. We apologize for any inconvenience.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Planet of the Space Bats

As my regular readers know, I’ve been talking for quite a while now here about the speculative bubble that’s built up around the fracking phenomenon, and the catastrophic bust that’s guaranteed to follow so vast and delusional a boom. Over the six months or so, I’ve noted the arrival of one warning sign after another of the impending crash. As the saying has it, though, it’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings, so I’ve been listening for the first notes of the metaphorical aria that, in the best Wagnerian style, will rise above the orchestral score as the fracking industry’s surrogate Valhalla finally bursts into flames and goes crashing down into the Rhine.
 
I think I just heard those first high notes, though, in an improbable place: the email inbox of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), the Druid order I head.

I have no idea how many of my readers know the first thing about my unpaid day job as chief executive—the official title is Grand Archdruid—of one of the two dozen or so Druid orders in the western world. Most of what goes into that job, and the admittedly eccentric minority religious tradition behind it, has no relevance to the present subject. Still, I think most people know that Druids revere the natural world, and take ecology seriously even when that requires scrapping some of the absurd extravagances that pass for a normal lifestyle these days. Thus a Druid order is arguably the last place that would come to mind if you wanted to sell stock in a fracking company.

Nonetheless, that’s what happened. The bemused AODA office staff the other day fielded a solicitation from a stock firm trying to get Druids to invest their assets in the fracking industry.

Does that sound like a desperation move to you, dear reader? It certainly does to me—and there’s good reason to think that it probably sounds that way to the people who are trying to sell shares in fracking firms to one final round of clueless chumps, too. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (available outside the paywall here) noted that American banks have suddenly found themselves stuck with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of loans to fracking firms which they hoped to package up and sell to investors—but suddenly nobody’s buying. Bankruptcies and mass layoffs are becoming an everyday occurrence in the fracking industry, and the price of oil continues to lurch down as producers maximize production for the sake of immediate cash flow.

Why, though, isn’t the drop in the price of oil being met by an upsurge in consumption that drives the price back up, as the accepted rules of economics would predict? That’s the cream of the jest. Here in America, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the industrial world, four decades of enthusiastically bipartisan policies that benefited the rich at everyone else’s expense managed to prove Henry Ford’s famous argument: if you don’t pay your own employees enough that they can afford to buy your products, sooner or later, you’re going to go broke.

By driving down wages and forcing an ever larger fraction of the US population into permanent unemployment and poverty, the movers and shakers of America’s political class have managed to trigger a classic crisis of overproduction, in which goods go begging for buyers because too few people can afford to buy them at any price that will pay for their production. It’s not just oil that’s affected, either: scores of other commodities are plunging in price as the global economy tips over into depression. There’s a specter haunting the industrial world; it’s the ghost of Karl Marx, laughing with mordant glee as the soi-disant masters of the universe, having crushed his misbegotten Soviet stepchildren, go all out to make his prophecy of capitalism’s self-immolation look remarkably prescient.

The soaring price of crude oil in the wake of the 2005 global peak of conventional oil production should have served notice to the industrial world that, to adapt the title of Richard Heinberg’s excellent 2003 summary of the situation, the party was over:  the long era in which energy supplies had increased year over year was giving way to an unwelcome new reality in which decreasing energy supplies and increasing environmental blowback were the defining themes. As my readers doubtless noticed, though, the only people who willing to grasp that were out here on the fringes where archdruids lurk. Closer to the mainstream of our collective thinking, most people scrunched shut their eyes, plugged their ears with their fingers, and shouted “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” at the top of their lungs, in a desperate attempt to keep reality from getting a word in edgewise.

For the last five years or so, any attempt to talk about the impending twilight of the age of oil thus ran headfirst into a flurry of pro-fracking propaganda. Fatuous twaddle about America’s inevitable future as the world’s new energy superpower took the place of serious discussions of the predicament into which we’ve backed ourselves—and not for the first time, either. That’s what makes the attempt to get Druids to invest their life savings in fracking so funny, in a bleak sort of way: it’s an attempt to do for the fracking boom what the fracking boom attempted to do for industrial civilization as a whole—to pretend, in the teeth of the facts, that the unsustainable can be sustained for just a little while longer.

A few months back, I decided to celebrate this sort of thinking by way of the grand old Druid custom of satire. The Great Squirrel Case Challenge of 2015 solicited mock proposals for solving the world’s energy problems that were even nuttier than the ones in the mainstream media. That was no small challenge—a detail some of my readers pointed up by forwarding any number of clueless stories from the mainstream media loudly praising energy boondoggles of one kind or another.

I’m delighted to say, though, that the response was even better than I’d hoped for.  The contest fielded more than thirty entries, ranging from the merely very good to the sidesplittingly funny. There were two winners, one chosen by the members of the Green Wizards forum, one chosen by me; in both cases, it was no easy choice, and if I had enough author’s copies of my new book After Progress, I’d probably just up and given prizes to all the entries, they were that good. Still, it’s my honor to announce the winners:

My choice for best squirrel case—drumroll, please—goes to Steve Morgan, for his fine gosh-wow sales prospectus for, ahem, Shares of Hydrocarbons Imported from Titan. The Green Wizards forum choice—drumroll again—goes to Jason Heppenstall for his hilarious parody of a sycophantic media story, King Solomon’s Miners. Please join me in congratulating them. (Steve and Jason, drop me a comment with your mailing addresses, marked not for posting, and I’ll get your prizes on the way.)

Their hard-won triumph probably won’t last long. In the months and years ahead, I expect to see claims even more ludicrous being taken oh-so-seriously by the mainstream media, because the alternative is to face up to just how badly we’ve bungled the opportunities of the last four decades or so and just how rough a road we have ahead of us as a result. What gave the fracking bubble whatever plausibility it ever had, after all, was the way it fed on one of the faith-based credos at the heart of contemporary popular culture: the insistence, as pervasive as it is irrational, that the universe is somehow obligated to hand us abundant new energy sources to replace the ones we’ve already used so profligately. Lacking that blind faith, it would have been obvious to everyone—as it was to those of us in the peak oil community—that the fracking industry was scraping the bottom of the barrel and pretending that this proved the barrel was full.

Read the morning news with eyes freed from the deathgrip of the conventional wisdom and it’s brutally obvious that that’s what happened, and that the decline and fall of our civilization is well under way. Here in the US, a quarter of the country is in the fourth year of record drought, with snowpack on California’s Sierra Nevada mountains about 9% of normal; the Gulf Stream is slowing to a crawl due to the rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheets; permanent joblessness and grinding poverty have become pervasive in this country; the national infrastructure is coming apart after decades of malign neglect—well, I could go on; if you want to know what life is like in a falling civilization, go look out the window.

In the mainstream media, on the occasions when such things are mentioned at all, they’re treated as disconnected factoids irrelevant to the big picture. Most people haven’t yet grasped that these things are the big picture—that while we’re daydreaming about an assortment of shiny futures that look more or less like the present with more toys, climate change, resource depletion, collapsing infrastructure, economic contraction, and the implosion of political and cultural institutions are creating the future we’re going to inhabit. Too many of us suffer from a weird inability to imagine a future that isn’t simply a continuation of the present, even when such a future stands knocking at our own front doors.

So vast a failure of imagination can’t be overcome by the simple expedient of pointing out the ways that it’s already failed to explain the world in which we live. That said, there are other ways to break the grip of the conventional wisdom, and I’m pleased to say that one of those other ways seems to be making modest but definite headway just now.

Longtime readers here will remember that in 2011, this blog launched a contest for short stories about the kind of future we can actually expect—a future in which no deus ex machina saves industrial civilization from the exhaustion of its resource base, the deterioration of the natural systems that support it, and the normal process of decline and fall. That contest resulted in an anthology, After Oil: SF Stories of a Post-Petroleum Future, which found a surprisingly large audience. On the strength of its success, I ran a second contest in 2014, which resulted in two more volumes—After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis, which is now available, and After Oil 3: The Years of Rebirth, which is in preparation. Demand for the original volume has remained steady, and the second is selling well; after a conversation with the publisher, I’m pleased to announce that we’re going to do it again, with a slight twist.

The basic rules are mostly the same as before:

Stories should be between 2500 and 7500 words in length;
They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;
They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;
They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;
They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;
They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;
They should take place in settings subject to thermodynamic, ecological, and economic limits to growth; and as before,
They must not rely on “alien space bats”—that is, dei ex machina inserted to allow humanity to dodge the consequences of the limits to growth. (Aspiring authors might want to read the whole “Alien Space Bats” post for a more detailed explanation of what I mean here; reading the stories from one or both of the published After Oil volumes might also be a good plan.)

This time, though, I’m adding an additional rule:

Stories submitted for this contest must be set at least one thousand years in the future—that is, after March 25, 3015 in our calendar.

That’s partly a reflection of a common pattern in entries for the two previous contests, and partly something deeper. The common pattern? A great many authors submitted stories that were set during or immediately after the collapse of industrial civilization; there’s certainly room for those, enough so that the entire second volume is basically devoted to them, but tales of surviving decline and fall are only a small fraction of the galaxy of potential stories that would fit within the rules listed above.  I’d like to encourage entrants to consider telling something different, at least this time.

The deeper dimension? That’s a reflection of the blindness of the imagination discussed earlier in this post, the inability of so many people to think of a future that isn’t simply a prolongation of the present. Stories set in the immediate aftermath of our civilization don’t necessarily challenge that, and I think it’s high time to start talking about futures that are genuinely other—neither utopia nor oblivion, but different, radically different, from the linear extrapolations from the present that fill so many people’s imaginations these days, and have an embarrassingly large role even in science fiction.

You have to read SF from more than a few decades back to grasp just how tight the grip of a single linear vision of the future has become on what used to be a much more freewheeling literature of ideas. In book after book, and even more in film after film, technologies that are obviously derived from ours, ideologies that are indistinguishable from ours, political and economic arrangements that could pass for ours, and attitudes and ideas that belong to this or that side of today’s cultural struggles get projected onto the future as though they’re the only imaginable options. This takes place even when there’s very good reason to think that the linear continuation of current trends isn’t an option at all—for example, the endlessly regurgitated, done-to-death trope of interstellar travel.

Let us please be real:  we aren’t going to the stars—not in our lifetimes, not in the lifetime of industrial civilization, not in the lifetime of our species. There are equally  good thermodynamic and economic reasons to believe that many of the other standard tropes of contemporary science fiction are just as unreachable—that, for example, limitless energy from gimmicks of the dilithium-crystal variety, artificial intelligences capable of human or superhuman thought, and the like belong to fantasy, not to the kind of science fiction that has any likelihood of becoming science fact. Any of my readers who want to insist that human beings can create anything they can imagine, by the way, are welcome to claim that, just as soon as they provide me with a working perpetual motion machine.

It’s surprisingly common to see people insist that the absence of the particular set of doodads common to today’s science fiction would condemn our descendants to a future of endless boredom. This attitude shows a bizarre stunting of the imagination—not least because stories about interstellar travel normally end up landing the protagonists in a world closely modeled on some past or present corner of the Earth. If our genus lasts as long as the average genus of vertebrate megafauna, we’ve got maybe ten million years ahead of us, or roughly two thousand times as long as all of recorded human history to date: more than enough time for human beings to come up with a dazzling assortment of creative, unexpected, radically different societies, technologies, and ways of facing the universe and themselves.

That’s what I’d like to see in submissions to this year’s Space Bats challenge—yes, it’ll be an annual thing from here on out, as long as the market for such stories remains lively. A thousand years from now, industrial civilization will be as far in the past as the Roman Empire was at the time of the Renaissance, and new human societies will have arisen to pass their own judgment on the relics of our age. Ten thousand years from now, or ten million? Those are also options. Fling yourself into the far future, far enough that today’s crises are matters for the history books, or tales out of ancient myth, or forgotten as completely as the crises and achievements of the Neanderthal people are today, and tell a story about human beings (or, potentially, post-human beings) confronting the challenges of their own time in their own way. Do it with verve and a good readable style, and your story may be be one of the ones chosen to appear in the pages of After Oil 4:  The Future’s Distant Shores.

The mechanics are pretty much the same as before. Write your story and post it to the internet—if you don’t have a blog, you can get one for free from Blogspot or Wordpress. Post a link to it in the comments to The Archdruid Report. You can write more than one story, but please let me know which one you want entered in the competition—there will be only one entry accepted per author this time. Stories must be written and posted online, and a link posted to this blog, by August 30, 2015 to be eligible for inclusion in the anthology.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The View From Outside

Recently I’ve been reacquainting myself with the stories of Clark Ashton Smith. Though he’s largely forgotten today, Smith was one of the leading lights of Weird Tales magazine during its 1930s golden age, ranking with H.P Lovecraft and Robert Howard as a craftsman of fantasy fiction. Like Lovecraft, Howard, and most of the other authors in the Weird Tales stable, Smith was an outsider; he spent his life in a small town in rural California; he was roundly ignored by the literary scene of his day, and returned the favor with gusto. With the twilight of the pulps, Smith’s work was consigned to the dustbin of literary history.  It was revived briefly during the fantasy boom of the 1970, only to sink from sight again when the fantasy genre drowned in a swamp of faux-medieval clichés thereafter.

There’s no shortage of reasons to give Smith another look today, starting with his mastery of image and atmosphere and the wry humor that shaped the best of his mature work. Still, that’s a theme for another time, and possibly another forum. The theme that’s relevant to this blog is woven into one of  Smith’s classic stories, The Dark Age. First published in 1938, it’s among the earliest science fiction stories I know of that revolves around an organized attempt to preserve modern science through a future age of barbarism.

The story’s worth reading in its own right, so I won’t hand out spoilers here. Still, I don’t think it will give away anything crucial to mention that one of the mainsprings of the story is the inability of the story’s scientists to find or make common ground with the neo-barbarian hill tribes around them. That aspect of the story has been much on my mind of late. Despite the rockets and rayguns that provide so much of its local color, science fiction is always about the present, which it displays in an unfamiliar light by showing a view from outside, from the distant perspective of an imaginary future.

That’s certainly true of Smith’s tale, which drew much of its force at the time of its composition from the widening chasm between the sciences and the rest of human culture that C.P. Snow discussed two decades later in his famous work “The Two Cultures.” That chasm has opened up a good deal further since Smith’s time, and its impact on the future deserves discussion here, not least because it’s starting to come into sight even through the myopic lenses of today’s popular culture.

I’m thinking here, for example, of a recent blog post by Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip. There’s a certain poetic justice in seeing popular culture’s acknowledged expert on organizational failure skewer one of contemporary science’s more embarrassing habits, but there’s more to the spectacle than a Dilbertesque joke. As Adams points out, there’s an extreme mismatch between the way that science works and the way that scientists expect their claims to be received by the general public. Within the community of researchers, the conclusions of the moment are, at least in theory, open to constant challenge—but only from within the scientific community.

The general public is not invited to take part in those challenges. Quite the contrary, it’s supposed to treat the latest authoritative pronouncement as truth pure and simple, even when that contradicts the authoritative pronouncements of six months before. Now of course there are reasons why scientists might not want to field a constant stream of suggestions and challenges from people who don’t have training in relevant disciplines, but the fact remains that expecting people to blindly accept whatever scientists say about nutrition, when scientific opinion on that subject has been whirling around like a weathercock for decades now, is not a strategy with a long shelf life. Sooner or later people start asking why they should take the latest authoritative pronouncement seriously, when so many others landed in the trash can of discarded opinions a few years further on.

There’s another, darker reason why such questions are increasingly common just now. I’m thinking here of the recent revelation that the British scientists tasked by the government with making dietary recommendations have been taking payola of various kinds from the sugar industry.  That’s hardly a new thing these days. Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is “Who’s paying him?”

It would be bad enough if that question was being asked because of scurrilous rumors or hostile propaganda. Unfortunately, it’s being asked because there’s nothing particularly unusual about the behavior of the British scientists mentioned above. These days, in any field where science comes into contact with serious money, scientific studies are increasingly just another dimension of marketing. From influential researchers being paid to put their names on dubious studies to give them unearned credibility to the systematic concealment of “outlying” data that doesn’t support the claims made for this or that lucrative product, the corruption of science is an ongoing reality, and one that existing safeguards within the scientific community are not effectively countering.

Scientists have by and large treated the collapse in scientific ethics as an internal matter. That’s a lethal mistake, because the view that matters here is the view from outside. What looks to insiders like a manageable problem that will sort itself out in time, looks from outside the laboratory and the faculty lounge like institutionalized corruption on the part of a self-proclaimed elite whose members cover for each other and are accountable to no one. It doesn’t matter, by the way, how inaccurate that view is in specific cases, how many honest men and women are laboring at lab benches, or how overwhelming the pressure to monetize research that’s brought to bear on scientists by university administrations and corporate sponsors: none of that finds its way into the view from outside, and in the long run, the view from outside is the one that counts..

The corruption of science by self-interest is an old story, and unfortunately it’s most intense in those fields where science impacts the lives of nonscientists most directly:  yes, those would be medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition. I mentioned in an earlier blog post here a friend whose lifelong asthma, which landed her in the hospital repeatedly and nearly killed her twice, was cured at once by removing a common allergen from her diet. Mentioning this to her physician led to the discovery that he’d known about the allergy issue all along, but as he explained, “We prefer to medicate for that.” Understandably so, as a patient who’s cured of an ailment is a good deal less lucrative for the doctor than one who has to keep on receiving regular treatments and prescriptions—but as a result of that interaction among others, the friend in question has lost most of what respect she once had for mainstream medicine, and is now learning herbalism to meet her health care needs.

It’s an increasingly common story these days, and I could add plenty of other accounts here. The point I want to make, though, is that it’s painfully obvious that the physician who preferred to medicate never thought about the view from outside. I have no way of knowing what combination of external pressures and personal failings led him to conceal a less costly cure from my friend, and keep her on expensive and ineffective drugs with a gallery of noxious side effects instead, but from outside the walls of the office, it certainly looked like a callous betrayal of whatever ethics the medical profession might still have left—and again, the view from outside is the one that counts.

It counts because institutional science only has the authority and prestige it possesses today because enough of those outside the scientific community accept its claim to speak the truth about nature. Not that many years ago, all things considered, scientists didn’t have the authority or the prestige, and no law of nature or of society guarantees that they’ll keep either one indefinitely. Every doctor who would rather medicate than cure, every researcher who treats conflicts of interest as just another detail of business as usual, every scientist who insists in angry tones that nobody without a Ph.D. in this or that discipline is entitled to ask why this week’s pronouncement should be taken any more seriously than the one it just disproved—and let’s not even talk about the increasing, and increasingly public, problem of overt scientific fraud in the pharmaceutical field among others—is hastening the day when modern science is taken no more seriously by the general public than, say, academic philosophy is today.

That day may not be all that far away. That’s the message that should be read, and is far too rarely read, in the accelerating emergence of countercultures that reject the authority of science in one field. As a recent and thoughtful essay in Slate pointed out, that crisis of authority is what gives credibility to such movements as climate denialists and “anti-vaxxers” (the growing number of parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated). A good many any people these days, when the official voices of the scientific community say this or that, respond by asking “Why should we believe you?”—and too many of them don’t get a straightforward answer that addresses their concerns.

A bit of personal experience from a different field may be relevant here. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I lived in Seattle, I put a fair amount of time into collecting local folklore concerning ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. I wasn’t doing this out of any particular belief, or for that matter any particular unbelief; I was seeking a sense of the mythic terrain of the Puget Sound region, the landscapes of belief and imagination that emerged from the experiences of people on the land, with an eye toward the career writing fiction that I then hoped to launch. While I was doing this research, when something paranormal was reported anywhere in the region, I generally got to hear about it fairly quickly, and in the process I got to watch a remarkable sequence of events that repeated itself like a broken record in more cases than I can count.

Whether the phenomenon that was witnessed was an unusual light in the sky, a seven-foot-tall hairy biped in the woods, a visit from a relative who happened to be dead at the time, or what have you, two things followed promptly once the witness went public. The first was the arrival of a self-proclaimed skeptic, usually a member of CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), who treated the witness with scorn and condescension, made dogmatic claims about what must have happened, and responded to any disagreement with bullying and verbal abuse. The other thing that followed was the arrival of an investigator from one of the local paranormal-research organizations, who was invariably friendly and supportive, listened closely to the account of the witness, and took the incident seriously. I’ll let you guess which of the proposed explanations the witness usually ended up embracing, not to mention which organization he or she often joined.

The same process on a larger and far more dangerous scale is shaping attitudes toward science across a wide and growing sector of American society. Notice that unlike climate denialism, the anti-vaxxer movement isn’t powered by billions of dollars of grant money, but it’s getting increasing traction. The reason is as simple as it is painful: parents are asking physicians and scientists, “How do I know this substance you want to put into my child is safe?”—and the answers they’re getting are not providing them with the reassurance they need.

It’s probably necessary here to point out that I’m no fan of the anti-vaxxer movement. Since epidemic diseases are likely to play a massive role in the future ahead of us, I’ve looked into anti-vaxxer arguments with some care, and they don’t convince me at all. It’s clear from the evidence that vaccines do far more often than not provide protection against dangerous diseases; while some children are harmed by the side effects of vaccination, that’s true of every medical procedure, and the toll from side effects is orders of magnitude smaller than the annual burden of deaths from these same diseases in the pre-vaccination era.

Nor does the anti-vaxxer claim that vaccines cause autism hold water. (I have Aspergers syndrome, so the subject’s of some personal interest to me.)  The epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders simply doesn’t support that claim; to my educated-layperson’s eyes, at least, it matches that of an autoimmune disease instead, complete with the rapid increase in prevalence in recent years. The hypothesis I’d be investigating now, if I’d gone into biomedical science rather than the history of ideas, is that autism spectrum disorders are sequelae of an autoimmune disease that strikes in infancy or early childhood, and causes damage to any of a variety of regions in the central nervous system—thus the baffling diversity of neurological deficits found in those of us on the autism spectrum.

Whether that’s true or not will have to be left to trained researchers. The point that I want to make here is that I don’t share the beliefs that drive the anti-vaxxer movement. Similarly, I’m sufficiently familiar with the laws of thermodynamics and the chemistry of the atmosphere to know that when the climate denialists insist that dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere can’t change its capacity to retain heat, they’re smoking their shorts.  I’ve retained enough of a childhood interest in paleontology, and studied enough of biology and genetics since then, to be able to follow the debates between evolutionary biology and so-called “creation science,” and I’m solidly on Darwin’s side of the bleachers. I could go on; I have my doubts about a few corners of contemporary scientific theory, but then so do plenty of scientists.

That is to say, I don’t agree with the anti-vaxxers, the climate denialists, the creationists, or their equivalents, but I think I understand why they’ve rejected the authority of science, and it’s not because they’re ignorant cretins, much as though the proponents and propagandists of science would like to claim that. It’s because they’ve seen far too much of the view from outside. Parents who encounter a medical industry that would rather medicate than heal are more likely to listen to anti-vaxxers; Americans who watch climate change activists demand that the rest of the world cut its carbon footprint, while the activists themselves get to keep cozy middle-class lifestyles, are more likely to believe that global warming is a politically motivated hoax; Christians who see atheists using evolution as a stalking horse for their ideology are more likely to turn to creation science—and all three, and others, are not going to listen to scientists who insist that they’re wrong, until and unless the scientists stop and take a good hard look at how they and their proclamations look when viewed from outside.

I’m far from sure that anybody in the scientific community is willing to take that hard look. It’s possible; these days, even committed atheists are starting to notice that whenever Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, twenty people who were considering atheism decide to give God a second chance. The arrogant bullying that used to be standard practice among the self-proclaimed skeptics and “angry atheists” has taken on a sullen and defensive tone recently, as though it’s started to sink in that yelling abuse at people who disagree with you might not be the best way to win their hearts and minds. Still, for that same act of reflection to get any traction in the scientific community, a great many people in that community are going to have to rethink the way they handle dealing with the public, especially when science, technology, and medicine cause harm. That, in turn, is only going to happen if enough of today’s scientists remember the importance of the view from outside.

In the light of the other issues I’ve tried to discuss over the years in this blog, that view has another dimension, and it’s a considerably harsher one. Among the outsiders whose opinion of contemporary science matters most are some that haven’t been born yet: our descendants, who will inhabit a world shaped by science and the technologies that have resulted from scientific research. It’s still popular to insist that their world will be a Star Trek fantasy of limitlessness splashed across the galaxy, but I think most people are starting to realize just how unlikely that future actually is.

Instead, the most likely futures for our descendants are those in which the burdens left behind by today’s science and technology are much more significant than the benefits.  Those most likely futures will be battered by unstable climate and rising oceans due to anthropogenic climate change, stripped of most of the world's topsoil, natural resources, and ecosystems, strewn with the radioactive and chemical trash that our era produced in such abundance and couldn’t be bothered to store safely—and most of today’s advanced technologies will have long since rusted into uselessness, because the cheap abundant energy and other nonrenewable resources that were needed to keep them running all got used up in our time.

People living in such a future aren’t likely to remember that a modest number of scientists signed petitions and wrote position papers protesting some of these things. They’re even less likely to recall the utopian daydreams of perpetual progress and limitless abundance that encouraged so many other people in the scientific community to tell themselves that these things didn’t really matter—and if by chance they do remember those daydreams, their reaction to them won’t be pretty. That science today, like every other human institution in every age, combines high ideals and petty motives in the usual proportions will not matter to them in the least.

Unless something changes sharply very soon, their view from outside may well see modern science—all of it, from the first gray dawn of the scientific revolution straight through to the flamelit midnight when the last laboratory was sacked and burned by a furious mob—as a wicked dabbling in accursed powers that eventually brought down just retribution upon a corrupt and arrogant age. So long as the proponents and propagandists of science ignore the view from outside, and blind themselves to the ways that their own defense of science is feeding the forces that are rising against it, the bleak conclusion of the Clark Ashton Smith story cited at the beginning of this post may yet turn out to be far more prophetic than the comfortable fantasies of perpetual scientific advancement cherished by so many people today.

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On a less bleak but not wholly unrelated subject, I’m pleased to announce that my forthcoming book After Progress is rolling off the printing press as I write this. There were a few production delays, and so it’ll be next month before orders from the publisher start being shipped; the upside to this is that the book can still be purchased for 20% off the cover price. I’m pretty sure that this book will offend people straight across the spectrum of acceptable opinion in today’s industrial society, so get your copy now, pop some popcorn, and get ready to enjoy the show.