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The sermon to the sharks

The publisher was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of John Michael “The Archdruid” Greer's recently published book The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered. It took me a couple of days to get through the book, which I did although much of the material was not new to me, for the sake of his exposition: John Michael is an erudite and patient writer, good at explaining away the various fallacies around money, energy and the pursuit of everything that bedevil our increasingly morbid industrial civilization. I read and I nodded, and it was not until I arrived at the last chapter, “The Road Ahead” that I started shaking my head, because a paraphrase of the title sneaked into my brain, one that I couldn't shake: Preaching to Sharks: Economics as if the Survival of Economists Mattered. What made it hard to shake was that it was accompanied by this stunning image from Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

I relate it here verbatim, for your benefit, because Melville makes better reading than either Greer or I. Enjoy! 

Warning: This is a text dating from 1851 and it does not adhere to contemporary standards of propriety. In particular, it contains coarse ethnic humor. Persons of delicate sensibility... blah blah blah.

From chapter 64, "Stubb's Supper":

... though one or two other like instances might be set down, touching the set terms, places, and occasions, when sharks do most socially congregate, and most hilariously feast; yet is there no conceivable time or occasion when you will find them in such countless numbers, and in gayer or more jovial spirits, than around a dead sperm whale, moored by night to a whaleship at sea. If you have never seen that sight, then suspend your decision about the propriety of devil-worship, and the expediency of conciliating the devil.

... Stubb heeded not the mumblings of the banquet that was going on so nigh him, no more than the sharks heeded the smacking of his own epicurean lips.

"Cook, cook!—where's that old Fleece?" he cried at length, widening his legs still further, as if to form a more secure base for his supper; and, at the same time darting his fork into the dish, as if stabbing with his lance; "cook, you cook!— sail this way, cook!"

The old black, not in any very high glee at having been previously routed from his warm hammock at a most unseasonable hour, came shambling along from his galley, for, like many old blacks, there was something the matter with his knee-pans, which he did not keep well scoured like his other pans; this old Fleece, as they called him, came shuffling and limping along, assisting his step with his tongs, which, after a clumsy fashion, were made of straightened iron hoops; this old Ebony floundered along, and in obedience to the word of command, came to a dead stop on the opposite side of Stubb's sideboard; when, with both hands folded before him, and resting on his two-legged cane, he bowed his arched back still further over, at the same time sideways inclining his head, so as to bring his best ear into play.

"Cook," said Stubb, rapidly lifting a rather reddish morsel to his mouth, "don't you think this steak is rather overdone? You've been beating this steak too much, cook; it's too tender. Don't I always say that to be good, a whale-steak must be tough? There are those sharks now over the side, don't you see they prefer it tough and rare? What a shindy they are kicking up! Cook, go and talk to 'em; tell 'em they are welcome to help themselves civilly, and in moderation, but they must keep quiet. Blast me, if I can hear my own voice. Away, cook, and deliver my message. Here, take this lantern," snatching one from his sideboard; "now then, go and preach to them!"

Sullenly taking the offered lantern, old Fleece limped across the deck to the bulwarks; and then, with one hand drooping his light low over the sea, so as to get a good view of his congregation, with the other hand he solemnly flourished his tongs, and leaning far over the side in a mumbling voice began addressing the sharks, while Stubb, softly crawling behind, overheard all that was said.

"Fellow-critters: I'se ordered here to say dat you must stop dat dam noise dare. You hear? Stop dat dam smackin' ob de lips! Massa Stubb say dat you can fill your dam bellies up to de hatchings, but by Gor! you must stop dat dam racket!"

"Cook," here interposed Stubb, accompanying the word with a sudden slap on the shoulder,—"Cook! why, damn your eyes, you mustn't swear that way when you're preaching. That's no way to convert sinners, Cook!"

"Who dat? Den preach to him yourself," sullenly turning to go.

"No, Cook; go on, go on."

"Well, den, Belubed fellow-critters:"—

"Right!" exclaimed Stubb, approvingly, "coax 'em to it, try that," and Fleece continued.

"Do you is all sharks, and by natur wery woracious, yet I zay to you, fellow-critters, dat dat woraciousness—'top dat dam slappin' ob de tail! How you tink to hear, 'spose you keep up such a dam slapping and bitin' dare?"

"Cook," cried Stubb, collaring him, "I won't have that swearing. Talk to 'em gentlemanly."

Once more the sermon proceeded.

"Your woraciousness, fellow-critters. I don't blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can't be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not'ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now, look here, bred'ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don't be tearin' de blubber out your neighbour's mout, I say. Is not one shark dood right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o' you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts sometimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness of de mout is not to swallar wid, but to bit off de blubber for de small fry ob sharks, dat can't get into de scrouge to help demselves."

"Well done, old Fleece!" cried Stubb, "that's Christianity; go on."

"No use goin' on; de dam willains will keep a scrougin' and slappin' each oder, Massa Stubb; dey don't hear one word; no use a-preaching to such dam g'uttons as you call 'em, till dare bellies is full, and dare bellies is bottomless; and when dey do get 'em full, dey wont hear you den; for den dey sink in de sea, go fast to sleep on de coral, and can't hear noting at all, no more, for eber and eber."

"Upon my soul, I am about of the same opinion; so give the benediction, Fleece, and I'll away to my supper."

Upon this, Fleece, holding both hands over the fishy mob, raised his shrill voice, and cried—

"Cussed fellow-critters! Kick up de damndest row as ever you can; fill your dam bellies 'till dey bust—and den die!"

Elsewhere in the same novel Queequeg, the cannibal harpooner and the narrator's best friend, hops down on the whale-corpse tied alongside their whaling ship and, for exercise, spends a while dispatching the frenzied sharks by stabbing them with a sharp spade around where their brains are presumably located, which, he finds, is the only effective method for shutting them down.

Greer's book comes out a time when the sharks are indeed ravenous: throughout the world zombie financial institutions, bloated with loans which have gone bad due to a dwindling resource base and a shrinking physical economy, are gorging themselves on free government money, while the governments cannot stop throwing bags of money into their gaping maws for fear of being eaten alive. They seem rather beyond redemption, and Greer acknowledges as much: “When the power of money faces off against the power of violence, money comes out a distant second.” [p. 213]

Books that attempt to look honestly at our contemporary condition often run amok when they attempt to show “the way forward.” What we ought to do is form political coalitions that lock out veto groups, curb the power of corporations, revise the tax code, bring back financial regulations from the 1950s and... so on. This would require reform. However, any reform of a complex system, such as our existing one, involves further investment in social complexity through a wide variety of costly initiatives. And here's the problem: there is no longer either the money or the energy for such initiatives. The default is to just let it collapse, but such an outlook, perfectly reasonable though it is, is generally not regarded as optimistic enough by the people who publish books (New Society Publishers is an exception). Some time ago (during the sustainability movement of the 1970s, which were Greer's formative time) optimistic, reform-minded expositions seemed useful; now they are starting to seem like compulsive anxiety coping behaviors: knock three times on wood, throw a pinch of salt over the left shoulder, mention sustainability and renewables.

One needs better reasons to read Greer than to show concern for the welfare of Western economists, because in all of the preceding chapters he does a through demolition job on their profession—so thorough that it may be more useful to start with fresh kindergartners than to try to reeducate existing economists. The way he does it is engaging enough to make the message palatable even to people who are not particularly concerned with energy or technology or finance, but he can also help dispel the fog for the technically minded people who are in favor of this or that “green” technology which happens to be, more likely than not, a net waste of energy. To explain such notions as “a net waste of energy,” which are counterintuitive for people whose thinking has been conditioned by the availability of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels, Greer delves into thermodynamics and the quality of energy, and explains why using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to feed the electric grid is a bad idea, no matter how “smart” that grid happens to be, because energy conversion incurs losses that an energy-poor society simply cannot afford. Thanks to his patient and thorough explanations, the reader does not have to be a scientist or an engineer to come to appreciate what an incredible waste of resources it is to squander high-quality (i.e, high-temperature) energy sources such as electricity and natural gas, which are concentrated enough to cut and weld steel, on low-energy tasks such as heating bathwater, or keeping a bed warm—something that can be done with a diffuse, low-energy energy source such as sunlight, or a few furry animals.

Greer's book also serves as a good introduction to the marvels of low-tech, along with an explanation of just how wasteful high technology is, and just how low its productivity is when analyzed in terms of overall resource use rather than in terms of just human labor (a particular blind-spot for the threatened subspecies of economist under discussion in much of the book). Greer knows a lot about technology that is appropriate to a deindustrializing, energy-strapped world: labor-saving devices that do not take exorbitant amounts of energy, fragile international supply chains or dwindling fossil fuel inputs. It turns out that three centuries ago, before industrialization, people were in fact quite clever. The techniques they used were appropriate ones, and limited not so much by lack of better technology as by the scarcity and the intermittent and diffuse nature of the energy sources with which they had to work, and with which we will have to work now that the fossil fuel extravaganza is at its end. Survival certainly does matter; whether economics will still matter is for economists to work out. They should consider themselves helped.

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