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A Bargain with the Archdruid

My anomalous position as a writer and speaker on the future of industrial society who holds down a day job as an archdruid has its share of drawbacks, no question, but it also has significant advantages.  One of the most important of those is that I don’t have to worry about maintaining a reputation as a serious public figure. That may not sound like an advantage, but believe me, it is one.

Most of the other leading figures in the peak oil scene have at least some claim to respectability, and that pins them down in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. Like it or not, they have to know that being right about peak oil means that they might just pick up the phone one of these days and field an invitation to testify before a Senate subcommittee or a worried panel of long-range planners from the Pentagon. The possibility of being yanked out of their current role as social critics and being called on to tell a failing industrial society how it can save itself has got to hover in front of them in the night now and then. Such reflections tend to inspire a craving for consensus, or at least for neatly labeled positions within the accepted parameters of the peak oil scene.

I can only assume that’s what lies behind the tempest in an oil barrel that’s rocked the peak oil end of the blogosphere in recent weeks, following the publication of an essay by Permaculture guru David Holmgren titled Crash on Demand. Holmgren’s piece was quite a sensible one, suggesting that we’re past the point that a smooth transition to green tech is possible and that some kind of Plan B is therefore needed. It included some passages, though, suggesting that the best way to deal with the future immediately ahead might be to trigger a global financial crash.  If just ten per cent of the world’s population stopped using fossil fuels, he noted, that might be enough to bring the whole system down all at once.

That proposal got a flurry of responses, but only a few—Dmitry Orlov’s, predictably, was one of those few—noted the chasm that yawns between Holmgren’s modest proposal and the world we actually inhabit.  It’s all very well to talk about ten per cent of the population withdrawing from the global economy, but the fact of the matter is that it’ll be a cold day in Beelzebub’s back yard before even ten per cent of self-proclaimed green activists actively embrace such a project ,to the extent of making more than the most modest changes in their own livestyles—and let’s not even talk about how likely it is that anybody at all outside the culturally isolated fringe scene that contains today’s green subcultures will even hear of Holmgren’s call to arms.

Mind you, David Holmgren is a very smart man, and I’m quite sure he’s well aware of all this. An essay by David MacLeod pointed out that the steps Holmgren’s proposed to bring down industrial society are what he’s been encouraging people to do all along.  It occurs to me that he may simply have decided to try another way to get people to do what we all know we need to do anyway: give up the hopelessly unsustainable lifestyles currently provided us by the contemporary industrial system, downsize our desires as well as our carbon footprints, and somehow learn to get by on the kind of energy and resource basis that most other human beings throughout history have considered normal. 

Still, a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse; as far as I can tell, Holmgren’s essay hasn’t inspired any sudden rush on the part of permaculturists and peak oil activists to ditch their Priuses in the hopes of sticking it to the Man. Instead, it veered off into debates about whether and how “we” (meaning, apparently, the writers and readers of peak oil blogs) could in fact crash the global economy.  There was a flurry of talk about how violence shouldn’t be considered, and that in turn triggered a surge of people babbling earnestly about how we need not to rule out the use of violence against the system.

It’s probably necessary to say a few words about that here. Effective violence of any kind is a skill, a difficult and demanding one, and effective political violence against an established government is among the most difficult and demanding kinds. I’m sorry if this offends anybody’s sense of entitlement, but it’s not simply a matter of throwing a tantrum so loud that Daddy has to listen to you, you know.  To force a government to do your bidding by means of violence, you have to be more competent at violence than the government is, and the notion that the middle-class intellectuals who do most of the talking in the peak oil scene can outdo the US government in the use of violence would be hilarious if the likely consequences of that delusion weren’t so ghastly. This is not a game for dabblers; people get thrown into prison for decades, dumped into unmarked graves, or vaporized by missiles launched from drones for trying to do what the people in these discussions were chattering about so blandly.

For that matter, I have to wonder how many of the people who were so free with their online talk about violence against the system stopped to remember that every word of those conversations is now in an NSA data file, along with the names and identifying details of everybody involved. The radicals I knew in my younger days had a catchphrase that’s apposite here: “The only people that go around publicly advocating political violence are idiots and agents provocateurs. Which one are you?”

Meanwhile, in that distant realm we call the real world, the hastily patched walls of peak oil denial are once again cracking under the strain of hard reality. The Royal Society—yes, that Royal Society—has just published a volume of its Philosophical Transactions devoted to peak oil; they take it seriously.  Word has also slipped into the media that in December, a select group of American and British military, business, and political figures held a conference on peak oil; they also take it seriously.

Meanwhile, air is leaking out of the fracking bubble as firms lose money, the foreign investors whose wallets have been the main target of the operation are backing away, and the cheerleading of the media is sounding more and more like the attempts to boost housing prices around the beginning of 2008. The latest data point? Longtime peak oil researcher Jean Laherrere, who (let us not forget) successfully predicted the 2005 peak in conventional oil production well in advance, used the same modeling techniques to predict future production from the Bakken Shale. His call? A production peak in the fall of this year, with steep declines after that. He’s the latest to join the chorus of warnings that the fracking bubble is merely one more overblown financial scam moving inexorably toward a massive bust.

Of course we’ve been here before. Every few years, the mass media starts to talk about peak oil, proponents of business as usual look nervous, and those in the peak oil scene who are inexperienced enough not to remember the last few cycles of the same process start talking about the prospects of imminent victory. (Yes, I made that mistake a while back; I think we all have.) Then the walls of denial get patched up again, the mass media scurries back to some comforting fairy tale about ethanol, wind power, biodiesel, fracking or what have you; the proponents of business as usual go back to their normal blustering, and peak oil activists who got overenthusiastic about predictions of imminent triumph end up with egg on their faces. That’s standard for any social movement trying to bring about an unwelcome but necessary change in society. Each time around the cycle, more people get the message, and a movement smart enough to capitalize on the waves of media interest can grow until it starts having a significant influence on society as a whole.

That final step can arrive on various time scales; a successful movement for change can see its viewpoint filter gradually into the collective conversation, or there can be a sudden break, after which the movement can still be denounced but can no longer be ignored. Glance back through the last few centuries and it’s easy to find examples of either kind, not to mention every point between those two ends of the spectrum. I’m far from sure if there’s a way to tell how peak oil activism will play out, but my hunch is that it may be closer to the sudden-break end of the spectrum than otherwise. What lies behind that hunch isn’t anything so sturdy as a headline or a new study; rather, it’s something subtle—a shift in tone in the denunciations that The Archdruid Report fields each week.

I don’t know if other bloggers share this experience, but I’ve found that internet trolls are a remarkably subtle gauge of the mass imagination. There are some trolls who only show up when a post of mine is about to go viral, and others whose tirades reliably forecast the new themes of peak oil denial three or four months in advance. When some bit of high-tech vaporware is about to be ballyhooed as the miracle that’s going to save us all, or some apocalyptic fantasy is about to become the new reason why it’s okay to keep your middle class lifestyle since we’re all going to die soon anyway, I usually hear about it first from trolls who can’t wait to let me know just how wrong I am. It’s an interesting fringe benefit of a blogger’s job, and it’s alerted me more than once to trends worth watching.

It so happens that in recent weeks, some of the criticisms I’ve fielded have struck a distinctly new note. I still get the classic cornucopians who insist I’m babbling pessimistic nonsense and of course we’ll all be just fine, just as I still get the apocalypse fanboys who insist that I’m ignoring the fact that the doom du jour is sure to annihilate us all, but I’m now seeing a third position—that of course it’s a crisis and we can’t just go on the way we’ve been living, a lot of things will have to change, but if we do X and Y and Z, we can keep some of the benefits of industrial society going, and I’m being too pessimistic when I suggest that no, we can’t. Maybe everyone else in the peak oil scene has been getting these all along, but they’re new to my comments page, and they have a tone that sets them apart from the others.

To be precise, it sounds like bargaining.

I don’t imagine that anyone in the peak oil scene has missed the discussions of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of coming to terms with impending death—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and their application to the not dissimilar experience of facing up to the death of the industrial age. Many of us can look back on our own transits through the five stages, and I’ve long since lost track of the times I’ve heard people at a peak oil event roll their eyes and mutter the name of one of the stages to whomever is sitting next to them. For the most part, though, it’s been a matter of individuals going through their own confrontations with the death of progress at their own pace.

Maybe this is still what’s happening, but I wonder. For a very long time, even among peak oil activists, the prevailing mood was still one of denial—we can solve this, whether the solution consists of solar panels, thorium reactors, revitalized communities, permacultured forest gardens, supposedly imminent great turnings of one sort or another, or what have you. After the 2008-2009 crash, that shifted to a mood of anger, and furious denunciations of “the 1%” and an assortment of more familiar supervillains became much more common on peak oil forums than they had been. The rise of apocalypse fandom has arguably been driven by this same stage of anger—suicidal fantasies very often get their force from unresolved rage turned inwards, after all, and it’s likely that the habit of projecting daydreams of mass extermination onto the future is rooted in the same murky emotional soil.

If that’s indeed what’s been happening, then bargaining is the next stage.  If so, this is good news, because unlike the two stages before it or the one that follows, the stage of bargaining can have practical benefits. If a dying person hits that stage and decides to give up habits that make her condition worse, for example, the result may be an improved quality of life during her final months; if the bargain includes making big donations to charity, the patient may not benefit much from it but the charity and the people it helps certainly will. People under the stress of impending death try to strike bargains that range all the way from the inspiring to the absurd, though, and whether something constructive comes out of it depends on whether the bargain involves choices that will actually do some good.

If this stage is like the ones the peak oil scene seems to have transited so far, we can expect to see a flurry of earnest blog posts and comments over the next few years seeking reassurance in a manner peculiar to the internet—that is, by proclaiming something as absolute fact, then looking around nervously to see if anyone else agrees. This time, instead of proclaiming that this or that or the other is sure to save us, or out to get us, or certain to kill us all, they’ll be insisting that this or that or the other will be an acceptable sacrifice to the gods of petroleum depletion and climate change, sufficient to persuade those otherwise implacable powers to leave us untouched. The writers will be looking for applause and approval, and if that I think their offering might do some good, I’m willing to meet them halfway. In fact, I’ll even suggest things that I’m sure to applaud, so they don’t even have to guess.

First is conservation. That’s the missing piece in most proposals for dealing with peak oil. The chasm into which so many well-intentioned projects have tumbled over the last decade is that nothing available to us can support the raw extravagance of energy and resource consumption we’re used to, once cheap abundant fossil fuels aren’t there any more, so—ahem—we have to use less.  Too much talk about using less in recent years, though, has been limited to urging energy and resource abstinence as a badge of moral purity, and—well, let’s just say that abstinence education did about as much good there as it does in any other context.

The things that played the largest role in hammering down US energy consumption in the 1970s energy crisis were unromantic but effective techniques such as insulation, weatherstripping, and the like, all of which allow a smaller amount of energy to do the work previously done by more.  Similar initiatives were tried out in business and industry, with good results; expanding public transit and passenger rail did the same thing in a different context, and so on.  All of these are essential parts of any serious response to the end of cheap energy.  If your proposed bargain makes conservation the core of your response to fossil fuel and resource depletion, in other words, you’ll face no criticism from me.

Second is decentralization.  One of the things that makes potential failures in today’s large-scale industrial infrastructures so threatening is that so many people are dependent on single systems. Too many recent green-energy projects have tried to head further down the same dangerous slope, making whole continents dependent on a handful of pipelines, power grids, or what have you. In an age of declining energy and resource availability, coupled with a rising tide of crises, the way to ensure resilience and stability is to decentralize intead: to make each locality able to meet as many of its own needs as possible, so that troubles in one area don’t automatically propagate to others, and an area that suffers a systems failure can receive help from nearby places where everything still works.

Here again, this involves proven techniques, and extends across a very broad range of human needs. Policies that encourage local victory gardens, truck farms, and other food production became standard practice in the great wars of the 20th century precisely because they took some of the strain off  overburdened economies and food-distribution systems. Home production of goods and services for home use has long played a similar role. For that matter, transferring electrical power and other utilities and the less urgent functions of government to regional and local bodies instead of doing them on the national level will have parallel benefits in an age of retrenchment and crisis. Put decentralization into your bargain, and I’ll applaud enthusiastically.

Third is rehumanization. That’s an unfamiliar word for a concept that will soon be central to meaningful economic policy throughout the developed world. Industrial societies are currently beset with two massive problems:  high energy costs, on the one hand, and high unemployment on the other. Both problems can be solved at a single stroke by replacing energy-hungry machines with human workers. Rehumanizing the economy—hiring people to do jobs rather than installing machines to do them—requires removing and reversing a galaxy of perverse incentives favoring automation at the expense of employment, and this will need to be done while maintaining wages and benefits at levels that won’t push additional costs onto government or the community.

The benefits here aren’t limited to mere energy cost savings. Every economic activity that can be done by human beings rather than machinery is freed from the constant risk of being whipsawed by energy prices, held hostage by resource nationalism, and battered in dozens of other ways by the consequences of energy and resource depletion. That applies to paid employment, but it also applies to the production of goods and services in the household economy, which has also been curtailed by perverse incentives, and needs to be revived and supported by sensible new policies. A rehumanized economy is a resilient economy for another reason, too:  the most effective way to maximize economic stability is to provide ample employment at adequate wages for the workforce, whose paychecks fund the purchases that keep the economy going. Make rehumanization an important part of your plan to save the world and I won’t be the only one cheering.

Those are my proposals, then: conservation, decentralization, rehumanization.  Those readers who are looking for applause for their efforts at collective bargaining with the forces driving industrial society toward its destiny now know how to get it here. I’d like to ask you to step out of the room for the next paragraph, though, as I have a few things to say to those who aren’t at the bargaining stage just now.

(Are they gone?  Good.  Now listen closely while I whisper:  none of the things I’ve just suggested will save industrial civilization. You know that, of course, and so do I.  That said, any steps in the direction of conservation, decentralization, and rehumanization that get taken will make the descent less disruptive and increase the chances that communities, localities, and whole regions may be able to escape the worst impacts of the industrial system’s unraveling. That’s worth doing, and if it takes their panicked efforts to bargain with an implacable fate to get those things under way, I’m good with that.  Got it? Okay, we can call them back into the room.)

Ahem. So there you have it; if you want to bargain with the archdruid, those are the terms I’ll accept. For whatever it’s worth, those are also the policies I’d propose to a Senate subcommittee or a worried panel of long-range planners from the Pentagon if I were asked to testify to some such body,. Of course that’s not going to happen; archdruids can draw up proposals on the basis of what might actually work, instead of worrying about the current consensus in or out of the peak oil scene, because nobody considers archdruids to be serious public figures. That may not sound like an advantage, but believe me, it is one.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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