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Waiting for the Millenium, part 2: The limits of magic

The first half of this essay sketched out the unfamiliar terrain that’s beginning to open out in front of the peak oil community as the concept of hard energy limits seeps back out into public awareness, after thirty years of exile in the Siberia of the imagination where our society imprisons its unwelcome truths. One probable feature of that landscape is the rise of revitalization movements among people in the industrial world. Last week I talked about those movements in general terms, but it’s possible to explain them a good deal more clearly by saying that revitalization movements try to cope with drastic and unwelcome social change through ritual action.

“Ritual is poetry in the world of acts,” according to the influential Druid writer and teacher Ross Nichols; in less gnomic form, ritual is action done for its symbolic meaning rather than its practical value. Most social movements combine ritual with practical action in various ways. What sets revitalization movements apart is that they emerge when practical responses to a changing world are either unworkable or unthinkable, and so the plan of action they offer is entirely a matter of ritual; even those actions that have practical aspects are done because of their symbolic power.

The wild card here is that ritual can have remarkable properties when it’s applied in the right way, for the right purposes. This is the secret of magic – the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, to repeat Dion Fortune’s definition. If what you’re trying to do depends on the choices of conscious beings, magic works. Rosie the Riveter, who’s been discussed in these essays more than once, is an example of successful magic. “We can do it,” her most famous poster said, and millions of American women discovered that they could; housewives who had never handled a machine tool in their lives headed off to factories to build airplanes, tanks, and cannons at a pace that exceeded even the most sanguine hopes of Allied planners, and flooded battlefields around the world with a tidal wave of munitions that swept the Axis powers into history’s dumpster.

For an even more extreme example, consider the trajectory that created the most dangerous of those same Axis powers. Not much more than a decade before the Second World War began, Germany was a textbook example of a failed state, an economic basket case with a discredited political establishment, riven by internal struggles that hovered close to the brink of civil war. Reasonable methods applied by reasonable men had failed to do anything about these problems. Hitler was not a reasonable man; he understood, better than nearly anyone else at the time, the power of the nonrational to shape human thought and action, and his response to Germany’s disintegration amounted to government by magic. Germany became one vast ritual theater, flooded with symbols, incantations and ceremony. Reasonable men predicted that he would be out of a job in six months; six years later, in total control of a tautly disciplined nation and one of the world’s most fearsome war machines, he declared war on most of the planet, and it took another six years and total defeat to break his grip on the German people.

There’s a rich irony that one of the few contemporaries of Hitler who could match his understanding of the nonrational was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi was not a reasonable man, either, but his mind rose as far above the level of reason as Hitler’s sank below it. In many ways, the task of prying loose “the jewel in the crown” of the British Empire from its overlords was a more astonishing feat than pulling Germany out of its post-1918 death spiral, and Gandhi did the job without any of the institutional tools Hitler relied on to work his magic. The spectacle of the largest empire in human history forced to submit to the gentle will of a single elderly mystic may be taken as an example of the positive potential of magic; the cataclysmic failure of the Twelve Year Reich show just as clearly its potential downside.

The difference in results unfolded partly from the moral distance between the two enchanters. Ethics are as important in magic as sanitation is in surgery, and for the same reason; neglect either one and you can count on things going septic. Still, there are also differences of means and ends, and these bear directly on the theme of this essay. In order to accomplish his purpose, Gandhi needed only to affect the thoughts and decisions of people in Britain, India, and any other countries that might influence one or the other. His work, in other words, was ultimately a matter of causing changes in consciousness, and that was something that symbolic action could and did accomplish.

Hitler, for his part, started out working on similar lines. To bring his vision of a triumphant Germany into reality, he had to cause changes in the consciousness of the German people, on the one hand, and in the minds of the leaders of other European nations on the other, and the magical knowledge he got on the fringes of the Vienna occult scene proved more than adequate to that task. Once he went past those goals to pursue the fantasy of military conquest, though, he passed out of the range of effects that could be accomplished by changes in consciousness, and into a realm that depended on the hard material realities of oil, steel, and geography. Once he crossed that line he was doomed; magic can transform a failed state into a unified nation, but it can’t make a world empire in an industrial age out of a modestly sized European state with few resources, no petroleum, and no defensible borders.

All this is simply to say that magic, like any other tool, is very well suited to carry out some jobs and completely useless for others. If the troubles faced by an individual or a community are primarily a function of consciousness, magical methods can be extraordinary effective in dealing with them. If the troubles that have to be faced has its roots in the world of matter, though, there are hard limits to what magic can do. You can’t use incantations and rituals, for example, to put oil in the ground if it was never there in the first place, or if the oil fields have already been pumped dry. You can’t even use magic to run a successful coal-to-liquids program if the net energy of the technology you’re using is too low; Hitler’s regime did its level best to accomplish that, with some of the world’s best scientists and engineers, the substantial coal reserves of occupied Europe, and an unrestricted supply of slave labor – and the Wehrmacht still ran out of fuel.

These examples are particularly relevant to the present, because the movements led by Hitler and Gandhi both had plenty in common with revitalization movements. Both emerged in response to drastic social stresses resistant to any more practical or reasonable approach – the post-Versailles near-collapse of Germany on the one hand, the economic and social burdens of British imperial rule over India on the other. Both drew heavily on symbolism, incantation, ritual, and the rest of the hardware in the magician’s toolkit, and both became mass movements characterized by the wild enthusiasm and millenarian expectations common to revitalization movements everywhere. The success of Gandhi’s project and the failure of Hitler’s thus points up, among other things, the difference between what a revitalization movement can do and what it can’t.

That’s of crucial importance just now, because the thing that most people in the industrial world are going to want most in the very near future is something that neither a revitalization movement nor anything else can do. We are passing from an age of unparalleled abundance to an age of scarcity, economic contraction, and environmental payback. As the reality of peak oil goes mainstream and the end of abundance becomes impossible to ignore, most people in the industrial world will begin to flail about with rising desperation for anything that will bring the age of abundance back. Even those who insist they despise that age and everything it stands for have in many cases already shown an eagerness to cling to as many of its benefits as they themselves find appealing.

The difficulty, of course, is that the end of the age of abundance isn’t happening because of changes in consciousness; it’s happening because of the laws of physics. The abundance we’ve all grown up thinking as normal was there only because a handful of nations burned their way through the Earth’s store of fossil carbon at breakneck speed. Most of the fossil fuel reserves that can be gotten cheaply and quickly have already been extracted and burnt; the dregs that remain – high-sulfur oil, tar sands, brown coal, and the like – yield less energy after what’s needed to extract them is taken into account, and impose steep ecological costs as well; renewables and other alternative energy resources have problems of their own, and have proved unable to take up more than a small fraction of the slack. These limitations are not subject to change, or even to negotiation; they define a predicament that we will all have to live with, one way or another, for a very long time to come.

What this means is that the fundamental causes of the crisis of modern industrial civilization are not susceptible to magic. We can’t conquer the future under the banner of abundance any more than Hitler could conquer the world under the banner of National Socialism, and for much the same reason: the physical resources to win such a war simply don’t exist. Now it’s true that we could respond to the present crisis by changes in consciousness, using the tools of magic among many others, but those responses would require us to accept the end of the age of abundance and the loss of essentially all of its benefits. That’s something very few people today are willing to do.

This is why I mentioned earlier that revitalization movements emerge when all practical responses to a changing world are either unworkable or unthinkable. Modern industrial civilization has wedged itself into just such a situation; those responses our political leaders and the bulk of our populations are willing to think about are unworkable, and those responses that might actually keep things from going haywire in fairly dramatic ways are unthinkable. That leaves ritual as the one remaining option.

If that option could be used in the right way, to change consciousness so that people learned how to think about the unthinkable, accept the end of the age of abundance, recognize the huge gap between what we currently think we need and what we actually need, and retool their lives and expectations to fit a post-abundance world, it could accomplish extraordinary things. The problem here is that it’s not usually possible to get people to use ritual action to achieve something they desperately don’t want to achieve. Magic, again, is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will; if the will isn’t there, neither is the magic.

That leaves the foredoomed but profoundly seductive attempt to make the physical world obey the desires of the majority of industrial humanity by means of ritual action. The Sarah Palin fans chanting “Drill, baby, drill,” as though drilling a hole in the ground magically obliged the Earth to put oil at the bottom of it, are taking tentative steps in that direction. So are the people who insist that we can keep on enjoying the trappings of the age of abundance if we only support a technology, or join a movement, or adopt an ideology, or – well, the list is already long, and it’s going to get much longer in the near future. My guess is that we’ve got a couple of years at most before somebody puts the right ingredients together in the right way, and the first fully fledged revitalization movement begins attracting a mass following with its strident denunciations of the existing order of things and its promise of a bright future reached by what amounts to a sustained exercise in magic.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention will recognize that this doesn’t mean people will be putting on robes and funny hats and brandishing ornate wands while intoning the names of spirits in whose existence they don’t actually believe. Just as magical incantations in the peak oil scene these days have replaced the old barbarous names with such words of power as “hydrogen economy,” “algal biodiesel,” “advanced petroleum recovery technology” and the like, the rituals that will be practiced by the revitalization movements to come may take the form of community building exercises, protest marches, outdoor festivals, and campaigns for political office. They may even include sensible steps such as weatherstripping homes and building solar greenhouses. What defines an act as ritual, remember, is that it’s done for symbolic rather than practical reasons; weatherstripping a house is a practical action when it’s done for the practical reason of saving a few dozen dollars a year on heat bills, but it becomes a ritual action when it’s done under the conviction that steps of this nature can ward off the end of the age of abundance.

This is why I suggested at the end of the first half of this post that an effective counterspell against the misplaced magical thinking at the core of the coming revitalization movements is the recognition that there is no bright future ahead. Those words conjured up some remarkably intense reactions among readers of this blog, and that was exactly what they were supposed to do. The sentence needs to be understood with a certain degree of subtlety, though. It does not predict a future of unbroken misery, or claim that there will be no gains to measure against the immense losses most of us will suffer.

What it means is that the core faith of the age that is passing, the faith that the future will be better than the past or present, has become a delusion. In almost every sense, the future ahead of us will be worse than the present and the recent past The vast majority of us will be much poorer than we have been; many of us will have to worry at least now and then about gettng enough food to stay alive; most of us will have to do without adequate medical care; most of us will not have the opportunity to retire; most of us will die at least a little sooner than we otherwise would have done. The security most of us take for granted, with police and firefighters on call and the rule of law acknowledged even when it’s not equally enforced, will in many places become a fading memory; many areas that have been at peace for a long time will have to cope with the ghastly realities of domestic insurgency or war. All these things will be part of everyday life for the vast majority of us for decades, and on the other side of it lies, not some imagined golden age, but a temporary respite of stabilization and partial recovery that might last for half a century at most before the next wave of crises hits.

This is the way civilizations decline and fall. It’s our bad luck to be living at the dawn of the second great wave of decline to hit Western civilization – the first, for those who haven’t been keeping track of their history, began in 1914 and ended in the early 1950s – and this wave will probably be a great deal worse than the first, if only because it comes right after the peak of conventional petroleum production and thus has to face a decline in net energy per capita on top of everything else. It’s comforting, and will doubtless be common, to look for scapegoats for the troubled times ahead, but it seems more useful to recognize that this is simply what happens at this point on the curve of history’s wheel.

Of all the reactions that the first half of this post fielded, though, the ones that interested me most were those that suggested that having a bright future to reach for is the only thing that gives meaning to life. Fortunately, this isn’t even remotely true. Nearly all of our ancestors lived in times when there was no bright future on the horizon; nearly all of our descendants will experience the same thing. The great majority of the former and, no doubt, of the latter as well, found other reasons for living. That’s an equally viable option right now, given a willingness to think the unthinkable, recognize that the age of abundance is ending, and consider the possibility that doing the right thing in a time of crisis, no matter how uncomfortable or challenging the right thing might be, may be a more potent source of meaning than waiting for magic to make a bright future arrive.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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