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On the Far Side of Denial

Any readers of The Archdruid Report who grew up, as I did, watching old black and white science fiction serials repackaged for the afternoon TV market may be forgiven for an overload of déjà vu just now. Somewhere near the end of any given serial, there’s inevitably a moment when the evil overlord says, “No! This cannot be! I am invincible!” It’s usually a close-up shot on the evil overlord’s sinister face, and it’s followed within fifteen seconds or so by a cataclysmic explosion that vaporizes the evil overlord, his death ray, his fortress of doom, his legions of terror, and everything else within a couple of planetary diameters or so, except the hero and any other characters who are sympathetic enough to be allowed by the scriptwriters to get to safety behind the zarkonite shield.

Well, it’s been said. Get ready for the explosion.

The example I’m thinking of right now is Lord Browne, formerly the chairman of British Petroleum and now a major player in the fracking industry. A few days ago, in a public appearance, he insisted that the United States would be able to stop importing foreign oil by 2030, because the supply of shale gas that would be made available to the US by fracking technology was, and I quote, effectively infinite.

Ahem.

I found myself wondering if Lord Browne might possibly have been one of the contestants in the Monty Python Upper Class Twit Of The Year Contest skit which, in a nice bit of synchronicity, a reader forwarded to me right about the time that his lordship was making a very public fool of himself. Browne has been employed for some time in the oil industry, and therefore has had every opportunity to find out that the word "infinite" does not belong in any meaningful statement about fossil fuels. Now of course he may simply have been engaged in the same sort of puffery that we saw not too long ago from mortgage brokers and real estate agents, who had pressing financial reasons to spend much of their time expressing equally expansive and equally inaccurate notions of where their market was headed. Still, I suspect there’s more going on than this.

Over the last six months or so an extraordinary torrent of nonsense about limitless gas and oil supplies has been sloshing through the media, spouting out from an equally extraordinary assortment of people who ought to know better. We’ve seen pundits loudly claiming that the United States had become a net petroleum exporter, when what was going on was that modest amounts of gasoline and other refined petroleum products that Americans are too poor to afford nowadays are being sold to more prosperous countries abroad. We’ve seen fracking technology, which the oil industry has been using for decades, waved around as a brand new technological breakthrough; we’ve seen the Bakken shale, which has been known since the 1970s and doesn’t actually have that much accessible oil in it, ballyhooed as a brand new game-changing discovery; we’ve seen the most blatant falsehoods proclaimed as fact—I’m thinking here of the pundit I critiqued in a previous post, who insisted that kerogen shales are exactly the same as what’s being drilled in the Bakken, and that the US therefore has some absurd amount of shale oil ready for pumping.

Over the last few weeks, a number of my fellow peak oil writers have expressed worries about this outpouring of counterfactual drivel. Myself, I find it a very hopeful sign. What we are seeing is the shattering of the consensus that has excluded any discussion of peak oil from the collective conversation of our time. Plenty of pundits who refused to talk about peak oil at all are now talking about it incessantly. Even though they’re screeching at the top of their lungs that it can’t happen, and scrabbling around for any argument, however feeble or blatantly false, they can use to back up that proposition, they’re still talking about it.

That is to say, industrial society is collectively entering the stage of denial.

The application of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief to the process of dealing with peak oil has become common enough in the peak oil scene that an offhand reference to one stage or another in a talk or blog post on the subject rarely needs an explanation. It’s not just peak oil: the sequence of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance has become part of the common currency of thought in the modern world. For all its drawbacks and critics—and it has plenty of both—the five stages do a tolerably good job of modeling the way many people go through the grieving process in most contexts, which is after all as much as any theoretical structure can be expected to do.

Whatever its more general applicability, furthermore, it very often fits the experience that people have when they start to wrestle with peak oil and everything that it implies. Those of us who have been in the peak oil scene for a while now have watched plenty of people stumble their way through it one step at a time. There’s the denial stage—no, that can’t possibly happen, I’m sure they’ll come up with something, there must be plenty of oil around here somewhere. There’s the anger stage—it’s all the fault of the politicians, the bankers, the oil companies, David Icke’s evil space lizards, or somebody, and if we just denounce them loudly enough on our favorite blogs, we’ll be fine. There’s the bargaining stage—okay, the age of abundance is over, but if we build lots of wind turbines or buy organic coffee or go to one more round of meetings where we all come to a consensus about the nice cozy future we think we want, it’ll all work out, right? There’s the depression phase—we’ve failed as a species, humanity is irremediably awful, it would be better for the whole cosmos if Gaia just got it over with and chucked us into extinction’s compost heap, and so on. Then, finally, comes acceptance, when you’ve finished dealing with your emotional issues about the end of the petroleum age and can get to work at last on the practical stuff.

Now of course some people go through the stages in a different order, some people skip one or more of them, and some people get stuck in one or another of them. (Kubler-Ross recognized that the same thing happens in the kinds of grieving she studied, a point her critics don’t often remember.) Still, the model stays in use in the peak oil scene because something roughly comparable to the five stage process can be traced in the experiences of a lot of people who go through a peak oil awakening. That much is a fairly common realization in the peak oil scene; what I don’t think many of us anticipated, though, is that the same process might happen on a collective level as well. I suggest that this is what’s been happening in recent months, and that it’s what has driven the tirades against peak oil that we’ve all seen splashed over the media.

With that in mind, I’d like to glance over at a considerably more useful artifact of the current stage of the peak oil debate. Feasta has just released a study by David Korowicz on the ways that a financial crash could kickstart a more general economic implosion by gutting the fiscal gimmickry that keeps international trade running. (You can download a PDF here.) It’s a thoughtful analysis, and it takes the time to make its assumptions explicit, which is useful; in the very few places where it runs off the rails, it’s fairly easy to glance back to the presuppositions governing the study and figure out where the problem lies.

Korowicz argues, if I may oversimplify his careful prose, that the current global financial system is a tottering mess that could come apart at the seams in no time flat, and it’s under stress already from a variety of factors, including peak oil. If and when it comes apart, he suggests, the entire structure of letters of credit and currency flows that supports global trade in little luxuries like enough food to eat could quite readily come apart also, producing a fiscal cardiac arrest that could shatter supply chains and bring most nations’ economies to a screeching halt in a matter of days or weeks.

Is this a plausible scenario? It’s considerably more than that, for a close equivalent happened in late 1932 and early 1933 in the United States. A banking system that had been fatally wounded by the 1929 stock market crash and its aftermath had been propped up temporarily by federal money—they called it the Reconstruction Finance Corporation then; that’s spelled "TARP" this time around—but was still loaded to the breaking point with huge amounts of worthless debt and unprepared for ongoing economic contraction. Then a new round of economic crisis triggered by events in Europe—no, I’m not making up any of this; look it up—pushed the US banking system over the edge; as banks folded one after another, the basic trust that makes a credit-based economy function evaporated; nobody could be sure if the bank that received their deposits or their loans would still be there the next day, bank runs followed, and the whole economy shuddered to a halt. Paychecks could not be cashed, businesses could not pay their suppliers or get paid for their products, and many of the negative consequences Korowicz sketches out duly happened.

Could that happen again, on a global scale? You bet. It’s the sequel, though, that didn’t get into Korowicz’ analysis. Faced with the imminent reality of national collapse, the US government did not sit on its hands, which is what those with the capacity to do something are always required to do in fast collapse theories. Instead, it temporarily nationalized the entire American banking system, declared that all assets held by the banks were owned by the government until further notice, made private ownership of gold by US citizens illegal, and ordered every scrap of gold in the country much bigger than a wedding ring sold to the government at a fixed, below-market price, with stiff legal penalties for anybody who tried to hang onto their gold stash. (I’m not making up any of this, either. Look it up.) Flush with seized bank assets and confiscated gold, the government poured money into the nationalized banks, which could then meet every demand for funds, stopping the panic in its tracks. Once stability returned, the banks returned to private ownership and got their assets back, though gold remained a government monopoly for decades longer.

This sort of drastic measure is far from rare in economic history. Germany in the 1920s put paid to its era of hyperinflation by issuing a new currency, the rentenmark, which was backed by taking out one big mortgage on every single piece of real property in the country. Other countries have done things even more extreme. A nation facing collapse, it bears remembering, has plenty of options, and it also has the means, motive, and opportunity to use them.

It’s only fair to point out that this sort of drastic response is something that the Feasta study specifically excludes. One of Korowicz’ basic assumptions, stated as such in his study, is that governments will respond to the crisis by choosing the minimal option they think will solve the immediate problem. It’s a reasonable assumption, right up to the point that national survival is at stake, but at that point history shows in no uncertain terms that the assumption goes right out the window. Nation-states are good at surviving—that’s why they’ve become the standard form of human political organization in the viciously Darwinian environment of modern history—and it’s hard to think of anything a nation-state won’t do if it thinks its survival is threatened.

That said, Korowicz’ study points to one very plausible way that the next major round of crisis could slam into the industrial world. The fact that the nations affected by it could kluge together responses to it, slap the equivalent of defibrillator paddles onto their prostrate economies, and get a heartbeat again for the time being doesn’t change the fact that a financial collapse followed by even a partial supply chain breakdown would be a massive crisis, the sort of thing that could well plunge hundreds of millions of people into permanent poverty and push the global economy further down a long ragged decline that will be much less amenable to drastic responses. We’re in agreement, in effect, that the patient is terminally ill; the question is simply whether first aid measures available to the paramedics on site can get his heart beating again, so he can drag out the dying process for a while longer.

Of course this is not the way the Feasta study is being discussed over much of the peak oil blogosphere. The fascination with sudden collapse—call it the Seneca cliff if you must, though it’s only fair to note that Seneca was talking about morality rather than the survival of civilization, and the civilization to which he himself belonged took centuries to decline and fall—is to the peak oil scene exactly what the fixation on Bakken shale oil and "effectively infinite" natural gas is to the collective imagination of industrial society as a whole: a means of denial. It’s just one more way of pretending that we and our grandchildren’s grandchildren don’t have to endure the long bitter centuries of decline and fall that are waiting for us—a future that, let’s face it, is considerably more frightening than a sudden collapse. Claiming that it’ll all be over in a flash is not that much different, all things considered, from claiming that it won’t happen at all.

Wry reflections about evil overlords aside, I suspect we’ve got a ways still to go before the various modes of denial finish working their way through the collective imagination of our time. The pundits and corporate flacks who have, for all practical purposes, gone barking mad about the world’s energy supply—I really don’t think any less forceful phrasing reflects the nature of these strident claims that scraping the bottom of the barrel, via fracking or otherwise, ought to be treated as proof that the barrel’s still full—are by and large associated with the two economic sectors, finance and petroleum, that are going to be clobbered first and hardest as the reality of peak oil sets in. The elephant’s in their living rooms; that’s why their shrill denials that elephants exist can be heard so clearly all through the neighborhood. As the elephant roams a little more widely, I suspect that the same frantic tone will travel with it, until finally we find ourselves on the far side of denial and the next phase starts.

That phase, for those who haven’t kept track, is anger. It’s once that stage arrives in force that the explosion will follow.

****************

End of the World of the Week #31

There are times, when the small hours of the morning arrive and I’m still awake and pondering, when I wonder about some of the great and insoluble questions of our time. One of these is why people listen when academics predict the future. It’s a common habit of professional scholars to do so, and the media and the public both lap it up, despite the awkward fact that almost all of those predictions turn out to be embarrassingly wrong.

One of the classic examples was the prophecy, widely made in the middle decades of the twentieth century and even more widely believed, that the great social crisis of the decades immediately ahead was going to be the end of work. Serious articles in serious periodicals and cocktail-party chitchat alike insisted that as automation took over, robot labor would inevitably replace human beings, first on the assembly line, then across the spectrum of employment, until the vast majority of people across the industrial world would no longer be needed in the labor force.

The mainstream liberal approach (in those days, remember, liberals were the mainstream) was to speculate about the promise and peril of a new age of limitless leisure, in which most people lived on a nationally guaranteed income and only artists, intellectuals, and executives had anything even close to a job. There was a great deal of very earnest talk about helping the poor, who allegedly couldn’t figure out what to do with spare time on their own, to fill their hours with suitably improving leisure activities. Meanwhile radicals insisted that once the new automated factories were in place, the ruling elite would simply exterminate the unnecessary population en masse. For many people in the 1960s radical scene, that was the most likely way the world—or at least their world—was supposed to end.

It’s indicative of the time that nobody questioned the assumption that the fantastic amount of energy needed for all those robot factories would be forthcoming, and nobody questioned that within a few years there would be, say, robots sophisticated enough to make your bed and cook your dinner. Both of those assumptions, and a great many more of the common beliefs of that time, turned out to be hopelessly wrong—and so, in turn, will plenty of the unquestioned presuppositions of our own time.

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

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