One of the things I’ve noted repeatedly since The Archdruid Report first began attracting a significant number of comments is the way that certain stories maintain a deathgrip on our collective imagination of the future.
I’ve written at length in previous posts here about two of those stories, the story of progress and the story of survivalism.
Look through the last decade or so of discussion about Peak Oil, or for that matter any other manifestation of the predicament of industrial civilization, and you’ll find the climactic scenes of both stories – the basement entrepreneur laboring away at the technological fix that will save us all, on the one hand, and the plucky band of survivors blasting away with assault rifles at savage, starving, mindless mobs, on the other – circling like broken records.
I’ve come to think that much of the mutual incomprehension that strangles communication among different sides of the Peak Oil scene, and has played an important part in keeping it fragmented and marginalized, comes from the way that so many people in that scene have their ears so full of one or another of these stories that they can’t hear anything else. Still, these two aren’t the only stories that have had this kind of effect on the debate, and I’d like to talk a little bit about one of the others in this week’s post. The story in question is at least as old as the other two, and it has, if anything, even more pervasive a presence in the rhetoric that shapes our collective thinking about the future. Call it the story of the eleventh hour.
You know that story inside and out already. It’s the one in which the world is on the brink of disaster, for some simple and readily defined reason that could be solved if people were only willing to do what was necessary. Things get worse, and worse, and worse, until at the last possible moment before disaster strikes – at the eleventh hour, to use the constantly repeated phrase – people leap up from their sofas and do whatever it is that they have to do to save the world. A few cautionary words about being more proactive next time rounds off the story, and then they all live happily ever after.
It’s a whacking good yarn, of course, which accounts for much of its popularity – everyone likes a taut suspenseful tale – and, like the other narratives we use these days to make sense of the future, it can be applied to almost any situation you care to name. It’s also a very politically useful story, which accounts for the other half of its popularity. If you can convince people that the world really is on the brink of disaster, it’s a good deal easier to stampede them into action, and if you can present them with a plan of action you claim will save the world, people may not look at the details too closely before they embrace it as their one hope of salvation. This can be exceedingly useful, particularly if you have an agenda your audience might not support if they know they have another choice.
The last three hundred years or so of North American cultural politics are full of individuals and movements who discovered these advantages in the story of the eleventh hour. One of the most relevant is also one of the earliest. I don’t know if any of my readers were introduced in college literature classes, as I was, to Jonathan Edwards’ harrowing 1741 sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Like so many preachers before and since, Edwards faced the not inconsiderable challenge of convincing human beings to live like angels, and made the often repeated discovery that one of the best ways to do it was to scare the stuffing out of them. The result is one of the most spectacular invocations of the eleventh hour in all of literature. Edwards bent all his talents to the task of convincing his listeners that as they sat their in their pews, right then and there, the ground might suddenly open up beneath them and drop them screaming and flailing into the jaws of eternal damnation.
It was a great success at the time. Like so many preachers before and since, though, Edwards discovered the homely moral of the story of the boy who cried wolf: you can only scare the stuffing out of people in the same way so many times before the impact wears off, and your listeners become irritated or, worse yet, bored. Few things in popular culture have less cachet than last year’s imminent disasters.
This is problematic for the Jonathan Edwardses of the world, who tend to be one-trick ponies, with careers founded on a single catastrophe and a solution to match. It can be even more problematic for the rest of us, though, because it does sometimes happen that one or more of the Jonathan Edwardses of an age proclaim a disaster that actually is in the offing – even a broken clock is right twice a day – and the story of the boy who cried wolf has two additional morals not often remembered: first, the wolves were real; second, they ended up eating the sheep.
That’s the hidden downside of the story of the eleventh hour. When you’ve told the same story often enough, people become used to the fact that you’ll be back again shortly with another catastrophe du jour, and another one after that, and so on. They stop being scared and become irritated or, worse yet, bored. At that point it doesn’t matter how many more changes you ring on the story or how colorfully you describe this year’s imminent disaster, because they’ve learned to recognize the narrative as narrative – and, not uncommonly, they’ve learned to glimpse whatever agenda lies behind the story and motivates the people who tell it.
The awkward conversation about Peak Oil in today’s industrial societies, I’m convinced, cannot be understood at all unless the spreading effect of these paired recognitions is taken into account. For decades now our collective discourse has been filled to overflowing with competing renditions of the story of the eleventh hour, from every imaginable point on the political and cultural spectrum. Whether it’s the missile gap or the ozone layer, fiat currencies or emerging viruses, immigration policy or trade deficits or the antics of whatever set of clowns is piling into or out of the executive branch this season, somebody or other is presenting it as a source of imminent disaster from which, at the eleventh hour, their proposals can save us.
This is the environment into which the Peak Oil movement emerged when it left its larval stage on a handful of internet mailing lists and started to try to warn the world that the age of cheap abundant energy is about to come to an end. In the language of theater, they found themselves playing to a very unsympathetic house. Mind you, it didn’t help that a significant number of people in the Peak Oil community proceeded to pack their message into the familiar framework of the story of the eleventh hour, complete in many cases with unstated political agendas that are not unfamiliar to those of us who have watched the last thirty years’ worth of imminent disasters come and go.
The irony here, and it’s as rich as it is bitter, is that this is one of the cases where the crisis is real. Depending on how you measure it – with or without natural gas liquids, oil-sands products, and other marginal sources of quasipetroleum fuel – world oil production peaked in 2005 or 2006 and, despite record prices and massive drilling programs in the Middle East and elsewhere, has been slipping down the far side of Hubbert’s peak ever since. Dozens of countries in the nonindustrial world are already struggling with desperate shortages of petroleum products, while the industrial world’s attempts to stave off trouble by pouring its food supply into its gas tanks via ethanol and biodiesel have succeeded mostly in launching food prices on a stratospheric trajectory from which they show no signs of returning any time soon.
Does this mean that we’re finally, for real, at the eleventh hour? That’s the richest and most bitter irony of all. As Robert Hirsch and his colleagues pointed out not long ago in a crucial study, the only way to respond effectively to Peak Oil on a national scale, and stave off massive economic and social disruptions, is to start preparations twenty years before the arrival of peak petroleum production. The eleventh hour, in other words, came and went in 1986, and no amount of pressure, protest, or wishful thinking can make up for the opportunity that was missed then. Listen carefully today and you can hear the sound of the clock tolling twelve, reminding us that the eleventh hour is gone for good.
The problem with this realization, of course, is that the story of the twelfth hour doesn’t make good melodrama. When you’re standing in the train station watching the train you meant to catch rattling out of sight around a distant curve miles down the track, it’s hard to capture the excitement of the desperate pelting run through the station that gets you onto the train just as it starts rolling toward the destination you hoped to reach. Equally, the story of the twelfth hour isn’t all that useful as a tool of political manipulation, since the silence of an empty train station makes it rather too easy to stop and think about whether the destination you hoped to reach was actually someplace you wanted to go.
While it may not make good melodrama or effective politics, though, I’ve come to think that one of the things we most need just now, in the Peak Oil scene and in modern industrial civilization as a whole, is that time of reflection in the silence that follows when the eleventh hour has come and gone, and the last hope of avoiding the consequences of our actions has vanished down the track into the land of might-have-beens. It’s been pointed out more than once that the process of coming to terms with Peak Oil has more than a little in common with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross injected into our cultural dialogue and Ben Vereen made famous in Bob Fosse’s extraordinary movie All That Jazz. It’s been noticed much less often that the final stage of the process has a gift to offer, and the name of the gift is wisdom – something the world arguably needs a good deal more than it needs another round of comforting melodrama, or another set of political agendas disguising themselves as solutions to yet another catastrophe du jour.