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Magical Thinking

As I write these words, the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico continues unchecked. It seems almost obscene to suggest that anything positive might come out of an oil spill that is already the largest in US history, and of course it’s true that whatever good might be salvaged from the situation will offer little consolation to the ravaged ecosystems and destroyed communities of the Gulf. Still, as teacher and Foxfire founder Eliot Wigginton noted, learning is only made possible by failure, and a failure this gargantuan and many-sided can at least offer us some pointed lessons for the future.

Most of those, to be sure, should have been obvious a long time ago. The fantasy of technological potency that leads the great majority of Americans, and slightly smaller majorities elsewhere in the industrial world, to think that any imaginable difficulty must have a promptly available technical solution, has been wearing thin for some time. Still, the spectacle of one of the world’s largest oil companies trying to shove chunks of used automobile tire down an undersea gusher in a failed attempt to stanch the flow has enough of a comic opera quality to lead to hard questions about just how well prepared we are to handle the downside of our own technologies once those have been pushed to the wall by the hard limits of geology and physics.

It will take time for those questions to be asked by more than a very small minority, and even longer for the answers to find their way into the collective conversation of our time. Right now, a great many people seem to be stuck in the same kind of unreason that led travelers stranded by the Eyjafjallajokull eruptions earlier this spring to pound their fists on airline employees’ desks and demand that somebody do something to get the ash out of the air. Equally useless demands that BP, or the US government, or somebody, get out there and stop the oil spill right away, have filled the media of late. It seems very hard for many people to grasp that all the possible ways to stop the spill right away have been tried and have failed, and that the one real hope left – the hard work of drilling a relief well next to the one that’s spewing oil into the Gulf, so that cement can be injected far enough down the borehole to matter – can’t be completed before August at the earliest, and could possibly take until the end of the year.

The gap between that bitter reality and the fantasy of instant techno-fulfillment that plays so large a role in the modern mind has been filled, on most peak oil websites, with a flurry of comments proposing a dizzying assortment of impractical gimmicks to deal with the crisis. Perhaps the saddest of these is the insistence, repeated even by people who ought to know better, that the US ought to use a nuclear weapon against the well.

This particular bit of uninspired lunacy takes various forms. Some suggest setting off a warhead at the wellhead; somehow they’ve managed not to notice the impact of the resulting tsunami on all the oil platforms and pipelines in the Gulf, just for starters. Others insist that a warhead ought to be lowered down the well bore; of course this fails to deal with the fact that the bore is jammed with wrecked drilling hardware, not to mention full of hot, sand-laden crude oil blasting up from the depths at a pressure of 13,000 pounds per square inch, not much less than that used in industrial machinery to make water cut holes in solid metal. Still others propose drilling a hole down next to the existing well and putting the warhead down that; here again, by the time a hole wide enough to admit even a small tactical warhead could be drilled to that level, the relief wells now under way will be long finished.

The notion that a nuclear weapon is the answer to BP’s undersea gusher is conclusive evidence, if any more were needed, that reasonable thought has gone right out the window. Admittedly it’s only fair to say that this happened with nuclear weapons a long time ago. To a frightening extent, the US nuclear arsenal has become a phallic talisman of national omnipotence that serves mostly to help Americans distract themselves from the waning of the real foundations of their country’s former hegemony. If that arsenal ever ceases to be militarily useful – and it’s probably a safe bet that China, to name only one likely candidate, has scores of laboratories working right now on technologies to make that happen, paid by the billions a year we spend to import salad shooters and cheap electronics – our national nervous breakdown may be one for the record books.

Still, there’s a sense in which it’s unfair to critique the proponents of nuking BP’s oil well merely because their plan won’t work and could very easily make an already catastrophic situation even worse. These are difficulties in putting the plan into practice, and it’s not supposed to be put into practice. It serves, rather, as an incantation, a way to banish the appalling awareness that neither you, nor I, nor anyone else except the fairly small number people actually struggling to deal with the well, can do anything about it.

Incantations of this sort make up a remarkably large fraction of the talk about peak oil and the future of industrial society these days. Get into an online conversation on the subject, for example, and you can be all but certain that at least one of the people involved will pipe up with a plan to solve it. It doesn’t matter at all that, much more than nine times out of ten, the person proposing the plan is doing nothing to make it happen, and neither is anybody else. The plan is not meant to happen. It’s meant to dispell the profoundly troubling sense that the future is spinning out of control and there’s not actually all that much that we can do about it.

Grand plans of this kind are hardly the only sort of incantation being chanted at the moment. A claim splashed across the cornucopian end of the internet in recent weeks insists that the world has enough readily available crude oil to keep going at the present rate of production for 800 years. To describe this as the end product of a horse’s digestive tract is to insult honest manure; not one scrap of evidence backs such a claim, but then evidence is beside the point when you’re composing an incantation.

The logic that underlies this kind of incantatory communication is often called “magical thinking” nowadays. There’s a deep irony in this phrase, since this kind of thinking is exactly what mages – actual practitioners of magic – don’t do. I’ve generally avoided talking about magic in these essays, but this is a context where that can’t be avoided. I’d like to ask those of my readers who have religious or rationalist objections to magic to keep reading; they may be surprised by some of what follows.

Probably the best place to start that discussion is with an elegant volume that’s sitting on the desk next to my keyboard as I type these words. Scarlet Imprint, a small British magical publisher, has just released an anthology about the crisis of our time titled XVI; students of magical symbolism will recognize this gnomic label as a reference to the sixteenth arcanum of the Tarot, which shows a tower being blown to smithereens. I have an essay in it; so do sixteen other contemporary mages; I’d be indulging in absurdity if I claimed to agree with more than a part of what’s in the book, but one thing not to be found in its pages is the sort of “magical thinking” just mentioned.

There’s a reason for this. One of the most distinguished 20th century theoreticians and practitioners of magic, Dion Fortune, defined magic as “the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.” (If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for making broomsticks fly, you’re beginning to catch on.) The basic tools of the mage are will and imagination; the raw materials he or she works with are symbolism and ritual – “poetry in the realm of acts,” as Fortune’s near-contemporary Ross Nichols defined that last term. The point of magic, as Fortune’s definition suggests, is changing states and contents of consciousness; it can have effects on the material world as well, but that normally involves influencing beings that bridge the gap between mind and matter – you and me, for example.

Exactly what can and can’t be done by way of will and imagination, working through emotionally powerful symbols and ritual psychodrama, is a question on which not all mages agree. Still, I don’t know of anyone in the field who claims to be able to levitate a broom, say, or to do any of the other things that make up the stock in trade of fantasy magicians. If magic instead of science had come out on top in the reality wars of the late Renaissance, we might all be watching movies in which mysterious scientists in white lab coats mutter algebraic formulae, climb astride giant test tubes, and zoom off to the Moon; compare that to real science, and you’ve got some sense of the gap between Harry Potter and real magic.

This is why serious mages generally roll their eyes when somebody comes along and insists that we ought to be able to solve physical problems – for example, shortages of material substances – with what amounts to magic. This happens quite often; I can usually count on hearing from somebody every month or so who thinks that because I’ve written several books on magic, and serve as the presiding officer of a contemporary Druid order, I ought to agree with them that we can conjure some replacement for petroleum out of thin air, or in some other way produce a world much more comfortable than the one we’ve got, by some change in consciousness or other.

They tend to be rather discomfited when I explain to them, as gently as possible, that they’ve made a very elementary mistake in magical theory. The technical term for it is confounding the planes; “the planes of existence,” an old axiom has it, “are discrete and not continuous” – which means in plain English that mind is mind, matter is matter, and making the transition from mind to matter is not an easy, much less an automatic, thing; it has to be done in specific ways, and with careful attention to the very real limits of the material world.

Now this does not mean that magic is useless in the face of the predicament of the industrial world. The problem is that the changes in consciousness that would actually do some good are changes that next to nobody in the industrial world is willing to make: for example, a shift in priorities that deliberately embraces poverty, accepting a rich personal, intellectual, and social life as a substitute for, or even an improvement on, the material extravagance that the industrial nations currently offer their more favored inmates. That change in consciousness is certainly accessible to each and every one of us; human beings just like us have been making it for many thousands of years; but it requires a rare willingness to step outside of the approved habits and ideas of modern industrial cultures. Striking a rebellious pose and claiming originality is very fashionable these days; actually rejecting the conventional wisdom of our time, and thinking thoughts that conflict with those of one’s contemporaries, is less common now than it was in the supposedly conformist Fifties.

I’ve come to suspect that one of the principal reasons for that, and more generally for the remarkable way in which today’s industrial societies are continuing to sleepwalk toward the abyss, is precisely the habit of incantation discussed earlier in this post. The internet is the natural home of incantation; discussions on email lists and online forums, bereft of the subtleties of normal human communication, often turn into a duel of incantations that the loudest and most intransigent voice generally wins.

Now it’s worth noting that incantation is a tool, and like any other tool, it can be used or misused. There are plenty of contexts in which the skillful use of incantations can have beneficial effects. Assure yourself repeatedly that you can accomplish some task that is in fact within your powers, for example, and your odds of accomplishing it go up significantly; assure yourself repeatedly that it’s out of your reach, and your chances of failure do the same. Still, using incantations as a nonchemical tranquilizer to ward off stress, and to assure yourself that everything is fine when everything is not fine, is much more problematic. In a time of crisis when keeping a level head and going on with life is crucial, it can have a valid place, but if it’s being used to drown out the still small voice that warns of approaching danger, it’s an invitation to disaster. In next week’s post, however, I propose to offer a counterspell.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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