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Mentats Wanted, Will Train

The theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report—the strategy of preserving or reviving technologies for the deindustrial future now, before the accelerating curve of decline makes that task more difficult than it already is—can be applied very broadly indeed. Just now, courtesy of the final blowoff of the age of cheap energy, we have relatively easy access to plenty of information about what worked in the past; some other resources are already becoming harder to get, but there’s still time and opportunity to accomplish a great deal.

I’ll be talking about some of the possibilities as we proceed, and with any luck, other people will get to work on projects of their own that I haven’t even thought of. This week, though, I want to take Gustav Erikson’s logic in a direction that probably would have made the old sea dog scratch his head in puzzlement, and talk about how a certain set of mostly forgotten techniques could be put back into use right now to meet a serious unmet need in contemporary American society.

The unmet need I have in mind is unusually visible just now, courtesy of the recent crisis in the Ukraine. I don’t propose to get into the whys and wherefores of that crisis just now, except to note that since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the small nations of eastern Europe have been grist between the spinning millstones of Russia and whichever great power dominates western Europe. It’s not a comfortable place to be; Timothy Snyder’s terse description of 20th century eastern Europe as “bloodlands” could be applied with equal force to any set of small nations squeezed between empires, and it would take quite a bit of unjustified faith in human goodness to think that the horrors of the last century have been safely consigned to the past.

The issue I want to discuss, rather, has to do with the feckless American response to that crisis. Though I’m not greatly interested in joining the chorus of American antigovernment activists fawning around Vladimir Putin’s feet these days, it’s fair to say that he won this one. Russia’s actions caught the United States and EU off balance, secured the Russian navy’s access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and boosted Putin’s already substantial popularity at home. By contrast, Obama came across as amateurish and, worse, weak.  When Obama announced that the US retaliation would consist of feeble sanctions against a few Russian banks and second-string politicians, the world rolled its eyes, and the Russian Duma passed a resolution scornfully requesting Obama to apply those same sanctions to every one of its members.

As the crisis built, there was a great deal of talk in the media about Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas, and the substantial influence over European politics that Russia has as a result of that unpalatable fact. It’s a major issue, and unlikely to go away any time soon; around a third of the natural gas that keeps Europeans from shivering in the dark each winter comes from Russian gas fields, and the Russian government has made no bones about the fact that it could just as well sell that gas to somebody to Russia’s south or east instead. It was in this context that American politicians and pundits started insisting at the top of their lungs that the United States had a secret weapon against the Sov—er, Russian threat: exports of abundant natural gas from America, which would replace Russian gas in Europe’s stoves, furnaces, and power plants.

As Richard Heinberg pointed out trenchantly a few days back in a typically spot-on essay, there’s only one small problem with this cozy picture: the United States has no spare natural gas to export.  It’s a net importer of natural gas, as it typically burns over a hundred billion more cubic feet of gas each month than it produces domestically.  What’s more, even according to the traditionally rose-colored forecasts issued by the EIA, it’ll be 2020 at the earliest before the United States has any natural gas to spare for Europe’s needs. Those forecasts, by the way, blithely assume that the spike in gas production driven by the recent fracking bubble will just keep on levitating upwards for the foreseeable future; if this reminds you of the rhetoric surrounding tech stocks in the runup to 2000, housing prices in the runup to 2008, or equivalent phenomena in the history of any other speculative swindle you care to name, let’s just say you’re not alone.

According to those forecasts that start from the annoying fact that the laws of physics and geology do actually apply to us, on the other hand, the fracking boom will be well into bust territory by 2020, and those promised torrents of natural gas that will allegedly free Europe from Russian influence will therefore never materialize at all. At the moment, furthermore, boasting about America’s alleged surplus of natural gas for export is particularly out of place, because US natural gas inventories currently in storage are less than half their five-year average level for this time of year, having dropped precipitously since December. Since all this is public information, we can be quite confident that the Russians are aware of it, and this may well explain some of the air of amused contempt with which Putin and his allies have responded to American attempts to rattle a saber that isn’t there.

Any of the politicians and pundits who participated in that futile exercise could have found out the problems with their claim in maybe two minutes of internet time.  Any of the reporters and editors who printed those claims at face value could have done the same thing. I suppose it’s possible that the whole thing was a breathtakingly cynical exercise of Goebbels’ “Big Lie” principle, intended to keep Americans from noticing that the Obama’s people armed themselves with popguns for a shootout at the OK Corral. I find this hard to believe, though, because the same kind of thinking—or, more precisely, nonthinking—is so common in America these days.

It’s indicative that my post here two weeks ago brought in a bumper crop of the same kind of illogic. My post took on the popular habit of using the mantra “it’s different this time” to insist that the past has nothing to teach us about the present and the future. Every event, I pointed out, has some features that set it apart from others, and other features that it shares in common with others; pay attention to the common features and you can observe the repeating patterns, which can then be adjusted to take differences into account.  Fixate on the differences and deny the common features, though, and you have no way to test your beliefs—which is great if you want to defend your beliefs against reasonable criticism, but not so useful if you want to make accurate predictions about where we’re headed.

Did the critics of this post—and there were quite a few of them—challenge this argument, or even address it? Not in any of the peak oil websites I visited. What happened instead was that commenters brandished whatever claims about the future are dearest to their hearts and then said, in so many words, “It’s different this time”—as though that somehow answered me. It was quite an impressive example of sheer incantation, the sort of thing we saw not that long ago when Sarah Palin fans were trying to conjure crude oil into America’s depleted oilfields by chanting “Drill, baby, drill” over and over again. I honestly felt as though I’d somehow dozed off at the computer and slipped into a dream in which I was addressing an audience of sheep, who responded by bleating “But it’s different this ti-i-i-i-ime” in perfect unison.

A different mantra sung to the same bleat, so to speak, seems to have been behind the politicians and pundits, and all that nonexistent natural gas they thought was just waiting to be exported to Europe. The thoughtstopping phrase here is “America has abundant reserves of natural gas.” It will doubtless occur to many of my readers that this statement is true, at least for certain values of that nicely vague term “abundant,” just as it’s true that every historical event differs in at least some way from everything that’s happened in the past, and that an accelerated program of drilling can (and in fact did) increase US petroleum production by a certain amount, at least for a while. The fact that each of these statements is trivially true does not make any of them relevant.

That is to say, a remarkably large number of Americans, including the leaders of our country and the movers and shakers of our public opinion, are so inept at the elementary skills of thinking that they can’t tell the difference between mouthing a platitude and having a clue.

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. For decades now, American public life has been dominated by thoughtstoppers of this kind—short, emotionally charged declarative sentences, some of them trivial, some of them incoherent, none of them relevant and all of them offered up as sound bites by politicians, pundits, and ordinary Americans alike, as though they meant something and proved something. The redoubtable H.L. Mencken, writing at a time when such things were not quite as universal in the American mass mind than they have become since then, called them “credos.”  It was an inspired borrowing from the Latin credo, “I believe,” but its relevance extends far beyond the religious sphere. 

Just as plenty of believing Americans in Mencken’s time liked to affirm their fervent faith in the doctrines of whatever church they attended without having the vaguest idea of what those doctrines actually meant, a far vaster number of Americans these days—religious, irreligious, antireligious, or concerned with nothing more supernatural than the apparent capacity of Lady Gaga’s endowments to defy the laws of gravity—gladly affirm any number of catchphrases about which they seem never to have entertained a single original thought. Those of my readers who have tried to talk about the future with their family and friends will be particularly familiar with the way this works; I’ve thought more than once of providing my readers with Bingo cards marked with the credos most commonly used to silence discussions of our future—“they’ll think of something,” “technology can solve any problem,” “the world’s going to end soon anyway,” “it’s different this time,” and so on—with some kind of prize for whoever fills theirs up first.

The prevalence of credos, though, is only the most visible end of a culture of acquired stupidity that I’ve discussed here in previous posts, and Erik Lindberg has recently anatomized in a crisp and thoughtful blog post. That habit of cultivated idiocy is a major contributor to the crisis of our age, but a crisis is always an opportunity, and with that in mind, I’d like to propose that it’s time for some of us, at least, to borrow a business model from the future, and start getting prepared for future job openings as mentats.

In Frank Herbert’s iconic SF novel Dune, as many of my readers will be aware, a revolt against computer technology centuries before the story opened led to a galaxywide ban on thinking machines—“Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of a human mind”—and a corresponding focus on developing human capacities instead of replacing them with hardware. The mentats were among the results: human beings trained from childhood to absorb, integrate, and synthesize information. Think of them as the opposite end of human potential from the sort of credo-muttering couch potatoes who seem to make up so much of the American population these days:  ask a mentat if it really is different this time, and after he’s spent thirty seconds or so reviewing the entire published literature on the subject, he’ll give you a crisp first-approximation analysis explaining what’s different, what’s similar, which elements of each category are relevant to the situation, and what your best course of action would be in response.

Now of course the training programs needed to get mentats to this level of function haven’t been invented yet, but the point still stands: people who know how to think, even at a less blinding pace than Herbert’s fictional characters manage, are going to be far better equipped to deal with a troubled future than those who haven’t.  The industrial world has been conducting what amounts to a decades-long experiment to see whether computers can make human beings more intelligent, and the answer at this point is a pretty firm no. In particular, computers tend to empower decision makers without making them noticeably smarter, and the result by and large is that today’s leaders are able to make bad decisions more easily and efficiently than ever before. That is to say, machines can crunch data, but it takes a mind to turn data into information, and a well-trained and well-informed mind to refine information into wisdom.

What makes a revival of the skills of thinking particularly tempting just now is that the bar is set so low. If you know how to follow an argument from its premises to its conclusion, recognize a dozen or so of the most common logical fallacies, and check the credentials of a purported fact, you’ve just left most Americans—including the leaders of our country and the movers and shakers of our public opinon—way back behind you in the dust. To that basic grounding in how to think, add a good general knowledge of history and culture and a few branches of useful knowledge in which you’ve put some systematic study, and you’re so far ahead of the pack that you might as well hang out your shingle as a mentat right away.

Now of course it may be a while before there’s a job market for mentats—in the post-Roman world, it took several centuries for those people who preserved the considerable intellectual toolkit of the classical world to find a profitable economic niche, and that required them to deck themselves out in tall hats with moons and stars on them. In the interval before the market for wizards opens up again, though, there are solid advantages to be gained by the sort of job training I’ve outlined, unfolding from the fact that having mental skills that go beyond muttering credos makes it possible to make accurate predictions about the future that are considerably more accurate than the ones guiding most Americans today. .

This has immediate practical value in all sorts of common, everyday situations these days. When all the people you know are rushing to sink every dollar they have in the speculative swindle du jour, for example, you’ll quickly recognize the obvious signs of a bubble in the offing, walk away, and keep your shirt while everyone else is losing theirs. When someone tries to tell you that you needn’t worry about energy costs or shortages because the latest piece of energy vaporware will surely solve all our problems, you’ll be prepared to ignore him and go ahead with insulating your attic, and when someone else insists that the Earth is sure to be vaporized any day now by whatever apocalypse happens to be fashionable that week, you’ll be equally prepared to ignore him and go ahead with digging the new garden bed. 

When the leaders of your country claim that an imaginary natural gas surplus slated to arrive six years from now will surely make Putin blink today, for that matter, you’ll draw the logical conclusion, and get ready for the economic and political impacts of another body blow to what’s left of America’s faltering global power and reputation. It may also occur to you—indeed, it may have done so already—that the handwaving about countering Russia is merely an excuse for building the infrastructure needed to export American natural gas to higher-paying global markets, which will send domestic gas prices soaring to stratospheric levels in the years ahead; this recognition might well inspire you to put a few extra inches of insulation up there in the attic, and get a backup heat source that doesn’t depend either on gas or on gas-fired grid electricity, so those soaring prices don’t have the chance to clobber you.

If these far from inconsiderable benefits tempt you, dear reader, I’d like to offer you an exercise as the very first step in your mentat training.  The exercise is this: the next time you catch someone (or, better yet, yourself) uttering a familiar thoughtstopper about the future—“It’s different this time,” “They’ll think of something,” “There are no limits to what human beings can achieve,” “The United States has an abundant supply of natural gas,” or any of the other entries in the long and weary list of contemporary American credos—stop right there and think about it. Is the statement true? Is it relevant? Does it address the point under discussion?  Does the evidence that supports it, if any does, outweigh the evidence against it? Does it mean what the speaker thinks it means? Does it mean anything at all?

There’s much more involved than this in learning how to think, of course, and down the road I propose to write a series of posts on the subject, using as raw material for exercises more of the popular idiocies behind which America tries to hide from the future. I would encourage all the readers of this blog to give this exercise a try, though. In an age of accelerating decline, the habit of letting arbitrary catchphrases replace actual thinking is a luxury that nobody can really afford, and those who cling to such things too tightly can expect to be blindsided by a future that has no interest in playing along with even the most fashionable credos.

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

In not unrelated news, I’m pleased to report that the School of Economic Science will be hosting a five week course in London on Economics, Energy and Environment, beginning April 29 of this year, based in part on ideas from my book The Wealth of Nature. The course will finish up with a conference on June 1 at which, ahem, I’ll be one of the speakers. Details are at www.eeecourse.org.

 

Photo credit: Wikipedia/dalbera

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