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Pepperspraying the future

A whiff of pepper spray rising from a suburban big box store, a breathtakingly absurd comment by an American politician, a breathtakingly cynical statement from a Canadian minister: three scraps of data sent whirling down the wind unnoticed by most of today’s disinformation society, which are also three clues to the exceptionally unwelcome future the industrial world is making for itself. Let’s take them one at a time, in reverse order.

On Monday, as a new round of climate change talks got under way in Durban, Canadian environment minister Peter Kent confirmed earlier media reports that Canada will refuse to accept any further cuts in its carbon dioxide output under the Kyoto treaty. Since Canada is one of only two countries on Earth that uses more energy per capita than the United States—an impressive feat, really, when you think about it—you might be tempted to believe that there was room for some modest cuts, but that notion is nowhere in Kent’s view of the universe. Those same media reports claimed that Canada was preparing to extract itself from the Kyoto treaty altogether; Kent dodged that question, but as Bob Dylan sang a good long time ago, you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

The week before, in a debate among candidates for the GOP’s presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich responded to a question about oil supplies by insisting that the United States could easily increase its oil production by four million barrels a day next year, if only those dratted environmentalists in the other party weren’t getting in the way. This absurd claim was quickly and efficiently refuteded by several peak oil writers—Art Berman’s essay over on the Oil Drum is a good example—but outside the peak oil blogosphere, nobody blinked. Never mind that the entire United States only produces 5.9 million barrels a day, that it took twenty years for the Alaska North Slope fields (peak production, 2 million barrels per day) to go from discovery to maximum output, or that the United States has been explored for oil more thoroughly than any other piece of real estate on the planet; the pundits and the public alike nodded and went on to the next question, as though a serious contender for the position of most powerful human being on the planet hadn’t just gone on record claiming that two plus two is whatever you want it to be.

All of which brings us inevitably to a Los Angeles suburb on Thanksgiving, where a woman seems to have peppersprayed her fellow shoppers to get a video game console to put under her Christmas tree.

To be fair, the situation seems to have been a bit more complex than that sounds at first hearing. If you’re still thinking of Thanksgiving Day in America in terms of lavish turkey dinners and visits from relatives, think again. Nowadays it serves mostly to mark the beginning of the year’s big shopping season, and stores on the cutting edge of American marketing open their doors Thanksgiving night to give shoppers their first shot at whatever overpriced gewgaws the media has decreed will be the hot item this year. The store where the pepper spray incident happened was one of these. There, the mob that formed, waiting for the sale to start, turned unruly; there was apparently shoving and shouting, and then the pepper spray came out. According to witnesses, the woman who used it incapacitated enough of the competition to get to one of the video game consoles that were the center of the agitation, hurried off with it to a checkstand, bought the console and got away. Twenty people, some of them children, needed treatment by medics at the scene.

A fair amount of self-important clucking in the American media followed the incident, though I don’t think anyone quite had the bad taste to point out that at least this year nobody was trampled to death by mobs of shoppers—yes, this happens every few years. Stephen Colbert, as usual, landed one in the bull’s-eye by pointing out that the incident would make a great video game. He’s right enough that I wouldn’t be the least surprised if Black Friday, in which shoppers punch, spray, stab, and shoot each other to get choice gifts for Christmas, turns out to be the hot new video game sensation next year and, no doubt, inspires pepper sprayings and tramplings of its own.

What all these three news stories have in common is that they display an attitude—it could as well be described as a belief, or even a religion—that treats the satisfaction of short term cravings for material goods as the only thing that really matters. The shopper with her pepper spray, the politician with his absurd claim, and the government with its blind disregard for national survival, each acted as though getting the stuff is all that matters, and any obstacle in the way—whether the obstacle was other shoppers, the laws of physics and geology, or the fate of Canada’s future generations—was an irrelevance to be brushed aside by any available means.

In recent years, there’s been a fair amount of intellectual effort devoted to the attempt to prove that this is inevitably how human beings will act, and this effort has had an influence well beyond the borders of, say, cognitive neuroscience. Glance over anything the peak oil blogosphere has to say about the absurdity of today’s public policies on energy, the environment, or the economy, for example, and it’s a safe bet that somebody will post a comment insisting that this is how human beings always behave. In point of historical fact, though, this is far from true. The popularity of the monastic life across so many cultures and centuries is hard to square with such claims; it has not been uncommon for anything up to ten per cent of the population of some countries and times to embrace lives of poverty, celibacy and discipline in a monastic setting. Clearly, whatever drives push our species in the direction of the satisfaction of short term cravings are not quite as omnipotent as they’ve been made out to be.

More to the point, those of us who had the chance to get to know people of the generation that came of age in the Great Depression have a solid counterexample to mind. A great many Americans who lived through that long ordeal came out of the experience with a set of attitudes toward material goods that were radically different from the ones we’ve just been discussing. They were, to judge by the examples I had the chance to know, as materialistic as any other American generation has ever been, but the shadow of 1929 lay permanently across any notion that pursuing short term gains at the cost of long term disaster could possibly be a good idea. It’s not accidental that the gutting of regulations on banks that made the current economic debacle possible did not happen until the generation that had witnessed 1929 had passed from public life—nor that it was the generation of the Baby Boom, the first to grow up after depression and war had definiteively given way to Pax Americana, that first put today’s culture of short term satisfaction into overdrive.

The behavior of a society, in other words, has at least as much to do with its recent experience of the world as it does with the deeper but more diffuse influence of the biological drives its members share with the rest of the species. Ironically, Gingrich’s response in the presidential debate pointed this up, though I suspect he himself will be the last person on the planet to realize this. He insisted that just as the United States was able to crush the Axis powers in the Second World War, a mobilization on a similar scale guided by the same optimism and can-do attitude could overwhelm any conceivable petroleum shortage and crash the price of oil. It’s a common metaphor—how many times have people in the peak oil scene, for example, called for a new Manhattan Project?—but in the present context it’s hopelessly misleading.

The Second World War, if anything, is a textbook case in what happens when optimism and a can-do attitude runs up against the hard facts of thermodynamics. All things considered, the Axis powers had better generalship, more disciplined military forces, and a much keener grasp of the possibilities of mechanized warfare than the Allies had at first, and Germany, at least, was ahead of the Allies in advanced military technology all the way through the war. What they did not have was secure access to fuel—and lacking that, they lost. Russia’s Baku oilfields and the immense US petroleum deposits in Texas and elsewhere more than made up the difference, providing the Allies with practically limitless supplies of energy, and thus of troops, weapons, mobility, and everything else that makes for victory in war. Having those things, they won.

It’s all the more ironic in that a similar struggle had a similar result on Gingrich’s home turf a century and a half ago. No one can possibly accuse the Confederacy of a shortage of optimism or can-do attitude, and the chief Confederate generals were incomparably better than their Union rivals. What those same Union generals finally figured out, though, was that the North’s larger population and vastly greater economic base meant that generalship didn’t matter; the North simply had to force the South into one meatgrinder battle after another, because even if the Union losses were larger, they could be replaced and the South’s could not. Appomattox followed in due order.

One of the points that needs to be drawn from these examples, and the many others like them, is that optimism and a can-do attitude are in large part effects rather than causes; or, to put matters a little differently, they are relevant to certain circumstances and not to others. In the twentieth century, a nation with abundant supplies of coal, oil, and iron ore could well afford boundless optimism, and got along better with boundless optimism than without it, because the resource base was there to back up that optimism and give it muscles—and, when necessary, teeth. A nation that lacks such resources but still sets out to act on the basis of boundless optimism, on the other hand, risks ending up in roughly the same condition as the American South in 1865 or Germany and Japan in 1945. Such a nation needs to foster entirely different qualities than the ones just mentioned: circumspection, patience, and a keen sense of the downside risks of any opportunity come to mind. Equipped with these, it’s possible for a nation with few resources to distract, dissuade, and ultimately outlast its potential enemies. That’s the secret of Switzerland’s survival, to cite one example among many.

The wild card in these calculations comes into play when shifts in technology, on the one hand, or the depletion of nonrenewable resources on the other, changes the status of a nation faster than its internal cultural shifts can adapt. Britain’s history is a case in point. Britain’s empire happened to come of age just as the Industrial Revolution was dawning, and coal—of which Britain had huge and easily accessible deposits—was the essential fuel of that revolution, powering the steam engines and (in the form of coke) the iron and steel foundries that were essential to economic and military power in the 18th and 19th centuries. With the dawn of the 20th century, though, petroleum—far more energy-rich than even the best anthracite coal, and irreplaceable as fuel for gasoline and diesel engines, which were busy putting coal-fired steam power out of business—elbowed coal out of the way. Britain had next to no petroleum supplies of her own, since the offshore drilling techniques that made the North Sea fields accessible were still decades in the future.

The result was a tremendous new range of vulnerabilities that next to nobody noticed in time. Twice in twenty-five years, accordingly, Britain blundered into a land war in Europe and found itself abruptly scrambling for survival. In both cases, it had to turn to its erstwhile colony, the United States, to bail it out, and the price tag on those bailouts finally included Britain’s empire and its status as a major world power. (There were several other countries just as eager as we were to buy Britain’s empire and status, but—well, basically, we peppersprayed them and left the store with our prize.) Optimism and a can-do attitude counted for very little, for example, when German submarines could throw a noose around the British islands that Britain alone couldn’t break.

The end of the age of petroleum promises another set of upsets on the same scale, but this time it’s not because some more convenient and concentrated resource has suddenly come on the scene. It’s because the world’s production of conventional petroleum peaked in 2005 and has been declining ever since. A desperate scramble to fill the resulting gap with what appear on the charts as "other liquids"—ethanol, biodiesel, tar sand extracts, you name it, if it can be poured into a fuel tank and burnt, it gets counted—has filled in the gap, at least for now, but all these "other liquids" require much more energy to produce than ordinary petroleum does, and of course those energy inputs aren’t accounted for in the totals. Thus, on paper, we’ve been chugging along a bumpy plateau for six years now, while in the real world—because of the rising energy inputs demanded by the "other liquids"—the supply of fuel available to do anything other than produce more fuel has been steadily sliding.

The problem we face right now is that it’s only been a few short years since world petroleum production was expanding, and next to nobody has begun to think through the implications of the shift. Neither the United States nor anybody else has the vast supplies of energy and other raw materials that would be needed to back up the confident, brash optimism of an earlier day, and yet we still cling to the notion that those attitudes are the appropriate response to any crisis, because that’s the approach we know. Patience, prudence, hard realism, the cold-eyed assessment of potential risks—those are foreign concepts to the leaders and the populace alike in most of the world’s industrial nations, and especially so here in America, where the cult of enthusiastic optimism has been welded solidy in place since before the birth of the Republic. It has always worked before, and most Americans at every point on the socioeconomic spectrum are firmly convinced that it will work again.

But it will not work again, because the resources that would allow it to work again no longer exist.

That is why, dear reader, if you happen to live for another few decades, and have the chance to look back from that vantage point on the years just ahead of us, you are likely to see those years littered with the scraps of any number of grandiose plans meant to overcome the rising spiral of crises taking shape around us right now. None of them will have worked, because none of them will deal with the driving force behind that spiral of crisis—the hard fact that we’ve exhausted most of the easily extracted, highly concentrated energy sources on this planet, and are going to have to downscale our expectations and our collective sense of entitlement to fit within the narrower and more burdensome limits that dependence on renewable energy sources will impose on us. Quite the contrary; every one of these projects will start from the assumption that optimism and a can-do attitude can overcome those limits—and the tighter the limits press and the more obvious it becomes that the limits aren’t budging, the more passionate the claims that one more heroic effort will defeat them once and for all.

Those claims will come from every point on the political spectrum, and will wrap themselves in every conceivable scrap of rhetoric that comes to hand. Before all this is over, I expect to see people who now call themselves environmentalists advocating for the stripmining of our national parks—in an environmentally sensitive manner, to be sure. We’ve already seen erstwhile environmentalists such as Stewart Brand and George Monbiot championing nuclear power; how poisoning the biosphere with radioactive waste makes more sense than flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide may well puzzle you as much as it does me, but straining at greenhouse gnats and swallowing nuclear camels is apparently a job requirement in their field these days.

What neither the pundits nor the politicians nor ordinary people are willing to consider, in turn, is the one option that offers a meaningful way forward: learning the old and necessary lesson that our desires need to be held within the bounds that the universe provides for us, and that long term goals and values need to trump short term cravings, especially where material goods are concerned. We can no longer afford the sort of attitude that insists that it’s okay to pepperspray our fellow shoppers to get that brand new video game console, or pepperspray the laws of physics and geology to get that extra four million barrels a day of oil (or, more precisely, to get the presidency by pretending we can get that extra four million barrels a day of oil), or pepperspray Canada’s grandchildren to get the right set of pretty figures on the national balance of trade and federal budget. Still, for the foreseeable future, pepper spray will be popular in the corridors of power and the corner tavern alike, and it will take a certain number of unnecessary disasters before that ends and people in the industrial world begin to come to terms with the new reality.

This, finally, is why I’ve spent the last year and a half passing on what I learned, decades ago, of the do-it-yourself green wizardry of the Seventies, and why I’ve supplemented that over the last two months with some of the basic elements of magic—the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will—which I also began to learn in the Seventies, and which had rather more than a nodding acquaintance in those days with the movements focused on appropriate technology, organic gardening, and the rest of it. During the years immediately ahead of us, unless I’m very much mistaken, the political, economic, and cultural institutions of the industrial world can be counted on to do just about anything other than a meaningful response to the crisis of our age, and any meaningful response that does happen is going to have to come from individuals, families, and community groups.

During those same years, I suspect, every available effort will be made to convince as many people as possible that the nonsolutions on offer are actually meaningful responses, and the things that might actually help—using less, conserving more, and downscaling our burden on the planet—are unthinkable. That’s the sort of thing that happens when the world changes, and structures and institutions adapted to an old reality turn out to be hopelessly unworkable in the new one. Next week we’ll talk about what might follow that period, and wrap up the discussion of green wizardry and magic alike for the time being.


Those of my readers who enjoy modern dance and are interested in supporting what, as far as I know, is the world's first peak oil-related dance performance may be interested to know that choreographer Valerie Green and her dance troupe, Dance Entropy, are seeking sponsors and donors for their upcoming piece Rise and Fall, which is based in part on my book The Long Descent. It's a worthy cause, and certainly has more to recommend it than dodging pepper spray in a big box store...

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