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Lifeboat time

One of the more notable news stories of the last week concerned the fate of M/S Explorer, a cruise ship built for polar seas that turned out to be not quite up to the rigors of the job. Before dawn on November 23, while cruising just north of the Antarctic peninsula, she rammed into submerged sea ice, leaving a fist-sized hole in the hull and water coming in faster than her pumps could handle. Fifteen hours later the Explorer was on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately the captain had the great good sense to order an evacuation well in advance. Even more fortunately, everyone knew what to do, and did it without quibbling. Crew and passengers abandoned all their possessions except the clothes they wore, donned survival suits, climbed into lifeboats, and spent five cold hours watching the Explorer fill up with water and heel over until another ship came to pick them up. Later the same day they were safe at a Chilean coast guard base on the South Shetland Islands, waiting for a plane ride home.

I thought of that story this morning while surveying the latest round of debates about peak oil, global warming, the imploding debt bubble, and half a dozen other symptoms of the unfolding crisis of industrial society now under way. By this point there are few metaphors for crisis more hackneyed than the fatal conjunction of ship and iceberg, but the comparison retains its usefulness because it throws the issues surrounding crisis management into high relief. When the hull’s pierced and water’s rising belowdecks, the window of opportunity for effective action is brief, and if the water can’t be stopped very soon, it’s lifeboat time.

By almost any imaginable standard, that time has arrived for the industrial world. Debates about whether world petroleum production will peak before 2030 or not miss a point obvious to anybody who’s looked at the figures: world petroleum production peaked in November 2005 at some 86 million barrels of oil a day, and has been declining slowly ever since. So far the gap has been filled with tar sands, natural gas liquids, and other unconventional liquids, all of which cost more than ordinary petroleum in terms of money and energy input alike, and none of which can be produced at anything like the rate needed to supply the world’s rising energy demand. As depletion of existing oil fields accelerates, the struggle to prop up the current production plateau promises to become a losing battle against geological reality.

Meanwhile the carbon dioxide generated by the 84 million barrels a day we’re currently pumping and burning, along with equally unimaginable volumes of coal and natural gas, drives changes in climate that only a handful of oil company flacks and free-market fundamentalists still insist aren’t happening. Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers – the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up 50 to 60 feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

In related news, Atlanta may just be on the verge of edging out New Orleans as the poster child for climate catastrophe. Unless the crippling years-long drought over the southeast United States gives way to heavy rains very soon, Atlanta will run completely out of drinking water sometime in the new year. The city government has had to explain to worried citizens that they are out of options, and there aren’t enough tanker trucks in all of Dixie to meet the daily water needs of a big city. Nobody is willing to talk about what will happen once the last muddy dregs in the Georgia reservoirs are pumped dry, and the drinking fountains, toilet tanks, and fire hydrants of greater metropolitan Atlanta have nothing to fill them but dust.

As Macchiavelli commented in a different context, though, people care more about their finances than their lives, and even the Atlanta papers have seen the drought shoved off the front page now and then by the latest round of implosions in the world of high finance. For those of my readers who haven’t been keeping score, banks and financial firms around the world spent most of the last decade handing out mortgages to anybody with a pulse, packaging up the right to profit from those mortgages into what may just be the most misnamed “securities” in the history of financial markets, and selling them to investors around the world.

On this noticeably unsteady foundation rose the biggest speculative bubble in recorded history, as would-be real estate moguls borrowed dizzying sums to buy up property they were convinced could only go up in value, while investors whose passion for profit blinded them to the risk of loss snapped up a torrent of exotic financial products whose connection to any significant source of value can be safely described as imaginary. All this hallucinated wealth, though, depended on the theory that people with no income, job, or assets could and would pay their mortgage bills on time, and when this didn’t happen, the whole tower of cards began coming apart. Some of the world’s largest banks have already taken billions of dollars in losses, and nobody is even pretending that the economic carnage is over yet.

Connect the dots and the picture that emerges will be familiar to those of my readers who have taken the time to struggle through the academic prose of How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse. One of the central points of that paper is that the decline and fall of a civilization unfolds in a series of crises separated by incomplete recoveries. The point is not an original one; Arnold Toynbee discussed the same rhythm of breakdown and respite most of a century earlier in his magisterial A Study of History. If that same pattern will shape the fate of our own civilization – and it’s hard to think of a reason why it should not – the second wave of crisis in the decline and fall of the industrial world may be breaking over our heads right now.

No, that wasn’t a misprint. Historians of the future will likely put the peak of modern industrial civilization between 1850 and 1900, when the huge colonial empires of the Euro-American world hit the zenith of their global reach. The first wave in the decline of our civilization lasted from 1929 to 1945, and was followed by a classic partial recovery in which public extravagance masked the disintegration of the imperial periphery. Compare the unsteady, hole-and-corner American economic empire of today with the British Empire’s outright dominion over half the world in 1900, say, and it’s hard to miss the signs of decline.

Today we may well be facing the beginning of the next wave. One advantage this concept offers is the realization that the experience of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations may offer a useful perspective on what’s coming. In the summer of 1929, nobody I know of predicted the imminent arrival of unparalleled economic disaster, followed by the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the bloodiest war in human history. Such things seemed to be stowed safely away in the distant past. From today’s perspective, though, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that something not unlike the bitter experiences of 1929-1945 – different in detail, surely, but equivalent in scale – may be in the offing.

If that’s likely – and I believe it is – we’re in much the same situation as the passengers of M/V Explorer were last Friday, but with an unwelcome difference. No alarm has been sounded, no order to evacuate announced over the p/a system. The captain and half the crew insist that nothing is wrong, while the other half of the crew insist that everything will be all right if they can only replace the current captain with another of their own choosing. The only warning being given comes from a handful of passengers who took the time to glance down into the hold and saw the water rising there, and while some people are listening to the bad news, next to nobody’s making any preparations for what could be a very, very rough time immediately ahead.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention know already that the preparations I have in mind don’t include holing up in a mountain cabin with crates of ammunition, stacks of gold bars, and way too many cans of baked beans in the pantry. Nor do they involve signing onto the latest crusade to throw one batch of scoundrels out of office so another batch of scoundrels can take its place. Rather, I’m thinking of a couple of friends of mine who are moving from the east coast megalopolis where they’ve spent most of their adult lives to a midwestern city small enough that they can get by without a car. I’m thinking of the son-in-law of another friend who is setting up a forge and learning blacksmithying in his spare time, so he’ll have a way of earning a living when his service economy job evaporates out from under him. I’m thinking of another couple of friends who just moved back to his aging parents’s farm to help keep it running.

For a great many people just now, actions like those are unthinkable, and even the simplest steps to prepare for financial crisis – paying down debts, reining in expenditures, making sure savings are in federally insured banks rather than the imaginary economy of paper assets, and putting by extra food in the cupboard and useful supplies in the shed to deal with the spot shortages and business bankruptcies that usually accompany economic crisis – are off the radar screen. That’s unfortunate, because some tolerably simple changes made now, while there’s still time to make them, could spare a lot of people a lot of grief not that far down the road.

It’s no fun to be jolted out of bed before dawn by a warning siren, and told that you have to head for the nearest lifeboat station, leaving everything behind but the clothes on your back. It’s even less fun to climb down into an open lifeboat in 20°F weather, knowing you’ll be tossed around on the gray Antarctic seas until somebody responds to the SOS – if anybody does. Still, add up all the unpleasantness of both and they’re still preferable to a last-minute scramble for survival on a sinking ship, when half the lifeboats and survival suits are already under water and the deck is heeling over so fast the other half may be out of reach.

Millions of people went through some approximation of that last experience between 1929 and 1945. Millions more may undergo the same sort of thing once the current crisis gets under way. There’s been plenty of talk about peak oil and the twilight of the industrial world, and that’s been useful in its way, but talk doesn’t substitute for constructive action when lifeboat time arrives.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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