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The Rumbling of Distant Thunder

I think most of my regular readers are aware that I spent last weekend at a peak oil event. There have been plenty of those over the last decade or so, but this one, The Age of Limits, was a bit unusual: it started from from the place where most other peak oil events stop, with the recognition that the decline and fall of industrial civilization is the defining fact of our time.

It’s ironic, to use no stronger term, that this should be the point at which so much discussion of peak oil stops, because it’s also the place where that conversation began some fifteen years ago, at the very dawn of today’s peak oil movement. Back then, as conversations about the limits to growth were getting started again for the first time since the twilight of the 1970s, most participants in those early discussions seem to have grasped that the industrial world would either rise to the challenge of peak oil and undergo the wrenching process of shortage and reallocation that a successful downshift of energy consumption would demand, or plow face first into the brick wall of resource limits and crash to ruin. The debates then were over which of these would be chosen. At this point it’s painfully clear which way the decision has gone, but the discourse of peak oil by and large remains the same.

If you go to most peak oil events, as a result, you can count on a flurry of panels and lectures pointing out the reasons why our civilization’s attempt to extract limitless resources out of a finite planet won’t work, can’t work, and isn’t working. Depending on the event, you will also get either a flurry of panels and lectures talking about how to make buckets of money profiteering off the inevitable failure of that attempt, or a flurry of panels and lectures bickering about who’s to blame for the inevitable failure of that attempt, or a flurry of panels and lectures airily insisting that the inevitable failure of that attempt isn’t inevitable at all so long as we all have faith in whatever the fashionable alternative energy du jour or the equally fashionable movement du jour happens to be. (You might also get two or three of these at once, in which case the effect is even more schizoid than usual.)

What you won’t get is any serious discussion about what can be expected to happen on the downside of Hubbert’s curve, and how individuals, families and communities might be able to respond to that. At most, you might be lucky enough to find a late night discussion among three or four presenters and a dozen attendees at the hotel bar, sitting there with drinks in hand and talking about the uncomfortable and unfashionable realities that the event organizers have carefully excluded from the agenda. It was those late night discussions that provided part of the inspiration for The Age of Limits conference. What would happen, several of us wondered, if the themes central to those discussions were brought out of exile and put at the center of a collective conversation?

That’s more or less what The Age of Limits set out to do. How did it work? By and large, remarkably well. Even on a quantitative level, it exceeded expectations; the organizers set their sights sensibly low, aiming for sixty attendees this first year, and kept publicity at an accordingly modest level. In the event, though, more than twice that number showed up, and launched a rolling conversation about decline, resilience, and survival that filled two full days and parts of two others. The practical side of the conference ran smoothly, despite a couple of impressive spring thunderstorms, and the quality of the discussions was generally high; for me, certainly, it was a relief not to have to deal with more of the usual fearful insistence that X or Y or Z will let the current possessors of middle class privilege cling to their comfortable lifestyles, and to have the chance to talk instead about how those lifestyles are going to go away and what might be done to deal constructively with their departure.

Thinking back over the weekend, three points of crucial relevance for the project of this blog stand out.

The first and most basic is precisely the number of people who are ready to grapple with the end of industrial civilization: not as an abstract possibility to be shoved off on a conveniently distant future, not as an inkblot pattern on which to project one’s favorite apocalyptic fantasies, not as a bogeyman that can be used to stampede recruits into signing up for the greater glory of some movement or other, but as a simple and inescapable fact that is already shaping our lives. Down the years since I first started trying to talk to other people about where our civilization is headed, that last attitude has been far and away the least common, and the frantic writhings with which so many people squirm away from thinking about that unthinkable reality have become wearily familiar.

One of the repeated pleasures of peak oil events is precisely that those of us who take that recognition seriously have the chance to share a meal or a couple of mugs of beer and talk openly about all the things you can’t discuss usefully with those who are still in the squirming stage. I mentioned in a post last fall the way that peak oil events function as a gathering of the tribe, but it would be more precise to call it a gathering of several tribes—the peak oil investment tribe, the environmental activism tribe, the alternative energy tribe, and so on. It’s one of the oddities of the tribe to which I belong that it’s hard to give it a simple, straightforward name of that kind, just a clear sense of the trajectory our age is tracing out against the background of deep time, and it’s one of the less heavily represented tribes at most peak oil events. What set The Age of Limits apart is that it was specifically for this latter tribe, and the enthusiastic turnout in response to very muted publicity—little more than a few posts on blogs—shows me that the audience for such discussions is a good deal larger than I had any reason to think.

The second point that stands out is the extent to which people in that tribe—and, I suspect, across a broader spectrum of society as well—are hungry for meaningful discussions of one of the taboo topics of our age, the relation of spirituality to the shape of our future. That hunger came as a surprise to our hosts; Orren Whiddon, the founder and general factotum of the retreat center where the conference took place, responded with noticeable discomfort to my proposal to give a talk on peak oil and spirituality, and his mood was not improved when two of the other speakers, Carolyn Baker and Dmitry Orlov, wanted to address the same topic. Still, all three talks went forward; I talked about the lessons that traditional spiritualities offer for understanding our predicament, Dmitry discussed religion as a mode of social organization that can sustain itself for millennia, and Carolyn explored collapse as an initiatory experience—and all three talks drew large and enthusiastic audiences.

It’s among the major failures of contemporary Western culture that the keepers of its religious traditions have so signally failed to deal with the core issues of our time. There’s a history behind that failure, of course. In what used to be the religious mainstream, well-meaning but clueless attempts to become relevant in the 1960s and 1970s led clergy to replace authentic spirituality with a new definition of religious institutions as some sort of awkward hybrid of amateur social service agencies and moral lobbying firms, deriving their values from the contemporary nonreligious left rather than from any coherent sense of their own traditional spiritual commitments. Since the vast majority of Americans then and now are on the moderate-to-conservative end of the political spectrum, and have next to no patience with the liberal ideologies that drove this shift, the formerly mainstream denominations ended up with a fraction of their old membership and influence as parishioners abandoned them in droves for more conservative churches and synagogues.

Those latter, meanwhile, had just completed the same transformation in the other direction, surrendering their own traditional commitments in order to embrace the political ideologies of the contemporary right. This is why so many of today’s supposedly conservative clergy are out there right now urging their congregations to vote for a Republican party whose platform could not be further from the explicit teachings of Jesus if somebody had set out to do that on purpose. Very few American religious groups have avoided falling into one or the other of these pitfalls.

That has had any number of unhelpful consequences, but the one relevant here is that either choice makes it effectively impossible for those who speak for religious institutions to say anything at all about the reality of our nation’s and civilization’s decline. The denominations of theold mainstream are committed to what, without too much satire, could be described as the belief that everyone in the world deserves a middle class American lifestyle; those of the new conservative religiosity are just as rigidly committed to the claim that middle class Americans deserve, and ought to be able to keep, that lifestyle. Neither can begin to address the hard fact that this lifestyle and nearly everything associated with it are going away forever.

That’s the vacuum into which Carolyn, Dmitry and I ventured over this weekend. For two of us, it wasn’t a first venture by any means; Carolyn has been discussing the spiritual dimensions of collapse for years now, on her website and in several worthwhile books; as for me, after some years of uneasy avoidance and sidelong references, I let myself be lured into discussing the interface between my own far from mainstream spirituality and the realities of the age of peak oil, and that discussion ended up turning into a book of its own. For all I know, Dmitry has been working on his own take on religion and peak oil for longer still, but it was a surprise to me, just as I noted with interest that Jim Kunstler’s latest post includes an uneasy discussion of the potential role of emerging minority religions (that’s spelled "cults" in today’s standard English, which Jim uses) in reinventing a coherent society in the wake of our decline and fall.

There is a good deal more that can be said about the religious dimensions of peak oil, and a familiar sinking feeling tells me that I’m probably going to be saying some of it, once the current sequence of posts on the fate of American empire has been completed. My readers outside North America—particularly in Europe, where religion by and large plays a negligible role in public life—may be puzzled by that focus, but there it is; when European countries encouraged their religious minorities to cross the Atlantic, as a good many of them did in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, they pretty much guaranteed that North America would have a much livelier religious history from then on than they would. Religion is a major organizing force in American public life; each of the great shifts in American politics and society have been paralleled, and often preceded, by a corresponding shift in the religious sphere; that pattern is highly unlikely to be broken by the traumatic redefinitions of American public life looming up ahead in the near future, and there are good reasons to think that the religious shift this time around is going to be on the grand scale.

So that’s the second point that struck me this weekend. The third was subtler. It didn’t get any space on the agenda, and rarely had a central role in the conversations, but it kept on popping up here and there in casual talk. One woman, for example, noted that the farm families in her area, conservative down to their bones, watched the bizarre spring weather this year with increasingly nervous faces and suddenly weren’t talking any more about how global warming was a myth; three other people nodded and chimed in with similar stories of their own. A man commented in passing that people who used to dismiss his efforts toward personal sustainability as a waste of time aren’t doing that any more, and some of them are asking for gardening tips. Quite a few attendees mentioned their sense that more and more people seem to be aware, however vaguely, that the troubles of the present time cut deeper and offer fewer options than those of years and decades past.

Something has gone very wrong. That’s the message that’s rumbling like distant thunder through the crawlspaces of the American imagination just now. Something has gone very wrong, and those whose public claim to power is their supposed ability to manage things so that they don’t go wrong—the captains of finance and brokers of political power who move from photo op to press conference to high-level meeting and back again—don’t know how to fix it.

I don’t expect that sense to reach anything close to critical mass in the near future—though it will be interesting to note whether this year’s version of the traditional American game of electoral charades, in which two indistinguishably airbrushed Demublican politicians pretend to be as different as possible until the moment the last voting booths close on Election Day, is able to whip up the same level of canned enthusiasm recent exercises of the same sort have managed. It could well take some years before the loss of faith in the institutions that define contemporary American life grows to the point at which it will become an unavoidable political fact. For that matter, I have no hard evidence that this is happening at all, just stray bits of conversation heard in passing. Still, those of my readers who have the opportunity might want to listen for the sound of thunder far off; if I’m right, the storm it’s heralding is going to be a whopper.


End of the World of the Week #24

The comets that lent their inkblot patterns to the apocalyptic frenzies discussed over the last two weeks have, of course, a more recent sibling, Comet Hale-Bopp, which swung through Earth’s skies in 1997. Like Comet Kohoutek and Halley’s Comet, Hale-Bopp attracted predictions of imminent doom, but one of those predictions came unpleasantly true when 39 identically dressed corpses, each with a five dollar bill and three quarters in its pocket, turned up at a posh San Diego mansion. The coroner’s verdict was death by mass suicide.

The backstory begins in the early 1970s, when a minor New Age figure named Marshall Applewhite had an out-of-body experience during a heart attack, and became convinced that he had been chosen for a grand destiny. He and one of the nurses who tended him, Bonnie Lu Nettles, created a belief system composed of equal parts Christianity, New Age thought, UFO beliefs, and science fiction. Under a variety of names—Human Individual Metamorphosis, Total Overcomers, and Heaven’s Gate were among the best known—their group proclaimed that its members would shortly be whisked away from a dying Earth on flying saucers; the fact that this never got around to happening, and repeated dates predicted by Applewhite and Nettles passed without incident, drove away some followers but proved no obstacle to the recruitment of others. After Nettles died in 1985, Applewhite led the group alone.

Enter Comet Hale-Bopp. First discovered by amateur astronomers in 1995, it became a focus of fringe speculation in the autumn of 1995 when a photograph allegedly showing an elongated object hovering behind the comet’s head got into circulation on the internet. Astronomers pointed out that the "object" was a 9th-magnitude star, but this was promptly dismissed by UFO believers, who preferred to trust the claims of psychics who announced that the object was a vast spaceship, and that the comet itself was going to crash into the Earth. When this news reached Applewhite, he announced to his followers that the spaceship had come to pick them up. This time, for reasons nobody living will ever know, he decided to make sure that he and his followers would leave the Earth one way or another.

The method of choice was a cocktail of poisons blended in pudding and washed down with vodka. Applewhite and his followers "discarded their physical containers" in three shifts, with those not yet poisoned tying plastic bags over the heads of those who were already dying. Applewhite and two of his female followers were the last to go; after he downed the pudding, they tied a bag over his head, and then took the poison themselves. Meanwhile, Comet Hale-Bopp went on to finish its loop around the sun and soared off into deep space, and the supposed alien spacecraft was never sighted again.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

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