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The Stories of our Grandchildren

Over the last six weeks, in what spare time I could find, I’ve glanced back over the last eight years of weekly Archdruid Report posts, trying to get some sense of where this blog has been and where it might head in the months and years to come. In language the Grateful Dead made famous—well, among those of us in a certain generation, at least—it‘s been a long strange trip, crossing terrain not often included in tours of the future of our faltering industrial civilization.

Among those neglected landscapes of the mind, though, the territory that seems most crucial to me involves the role that stories play in shaping our ideas and expectations about the future, and thus our future itself. It’s a surprisingly difficult issue for many people these days to grapple with. Each time I raise it, I can count on hearing from readers who don’t get what I’m saying, usually because they’ve lost track of the distinction between whatever story they’ve gotten stuck in their minds and the far more diffuse and shapeless experiences that the story claims to explain. We tell ourselves stories to explain the world; that much is normal among human beings, and inevitable. The problem creeps in when we lose track of the difference between the narrative map and the experiential territory, and treat (for example) progress as a simple reality, rather than the complex and nuanced set of interpretations we lay over the facts of history to turn them into incidents in a familiar narrative.

During the time just past, I’ve had several reminders of the power of stories to shape the world of human experience, and the way those stories can get out of step with the facts on the ground. I’d like to take a moment to talk about a couple of those just now.

The first reminder made quite a splash in the news media a couple of weeks ago, when the Energy Information Administraton (EIA)—the US bureaucracy that publishes statistics about American energy resources and production—was forced to admit in public that, well, actually, there was only about 4% as much economically extractable oil in the Monterey Shale in California as they’d claimed a few years earlier. Given that this same Monterey Shale was supposed to provide us with around two-thirds of the oil that was allegedly going to turn the United States into a major oil exporter again by 2020, this was not precisely a minor issue. How many other oil shale deposits are facing similar downgrades? That’s a good question, and one which the EIA seems noticeably unwilling to address.

Bertram Gross pointed out a good many years ago that economic indicators were becoming “economic vindicators,” meant to justify government policy instead of providing accurate glimpses into what’s actually happening in the economic sphere. That certainly seems to have been one of the things behind the EIA’s stratospherically overenthusiastic estimates.  Equally, the US government seems to have responded to the current boom in shale with exactly the same sort of mindless cheerleading it displayed during the housing bubble that popped in 2008 and the tech stock bubble that popped in 2001. I trust it hasn’t escaped the attention of my readers that the key product of the shale oil boom hasn’t been oil or natural gas, but bundled shale leases and similar scraps of overpriced paper, sold to gullible investors with the same gaudy promises of fast wealth and starry-eyed disdain for mere economic reality that fed those earlier bubbles, and drove the market crashes that followed.

Still, there’s more going on here than the common or garden variety political puffery and securities fraud that makes up so much of business as usual in America’s years of decline. The question that needs asking is this:  why are investors who watched those two earlier booms go bust, who either lost money in them or saw many others do so, lining up so eagerly to put their nest eggs into shale-oil companies that are losing money quarter after quarter, and can only stay in business by loading on more and more debt?  Why is the same weary drivel about a new economic era of perpetual prosperity being lapped up so uncritically for a third time in fifteen years, when anyone in possession of three functioning neurons ought to be able to recognize it as a rehash of the same failed hype paraded about in previous bubbles, all the way back to the tulip bubble in the 17th-century Netherlands?

That’s not a rhetorical question; it has an answer, and the answer follows from one of the most popular stories of our culture, the story that says that getting rich is normal. From Horatio Alger right on down to the present, our entertainment media have been overloaded with tales about people who rose up out of poverty and became prosperous. What’s more, during the boom times that made up so much of the 20th century, a modest fraction of those tales were true, or at least not obviously false. Especially but not only  in the United States, you could find people who were born poor and died rich. An expanding economy brings that option within reach for some, though—despite the propaganda—never for all.

The story was always at least a little dishonest, as the golden road up from poverty was never normal for more than a certain fraction of the population, and the wealth of the few always depended, as it always does depend in the real world, on the impoverishment of the many. During their 20th century heyday, the world’s industrial societies could pretend that wasn’t the case by the simple expedient of offshoring their poverty to the Third World, and supporting their standards of living at home on the backs of sharecroppers and sweatshop workers overseas. Still, in those same industrial nations, it was possible to ignore that for a while, and to daydream about a future in which every last human being on earth would get to enjoy the benefits of upward mobility in a rapidly expanding economy.

That dream is over and done with. To begin with, the long arc of economic expansion is over; subtract the fake wealth generated by the mass production of unpayable IOUs—the one real growth industry in our economy these days—and we live in an economy in decline, in which real wealth trickles away and  the fraction of the population permanently shut out of the workforce rises year after year.  Downward mobility, not upward mobility, has become a central fact of our time.  The reality has changed, but the story hasn’t, and so investors convinced that their money ought to make them money are easy prey for some grifter in a Brooks Brothers suit who insists that tech stocks, or real estate, or oil shales will inevitably bring them the rising incomes and painless prosperity that the real world no longer provides.

The same sort of mismatch between a popular story and an unwelcome reality defines the second reminder I want to discuss, which popped up during and after the Age of Limits conference late last month in the woods of south central Pennsylvania. That was a very lively and enjoyable event; when Dr. Dennis Meadows, this year’s special guest, noted how pleasant it was to speak to an audience that didn’t have to be convinced of the reality of limits to growth, he spoke for all the presenters and a great many of the attendees as well. For a few days, those of us who attended had the chance to talk about the most important reality of our age—the decline and impending fall of modern industrial civilization—without having to contend minute by minute with the thirty-one flavors of denial so many people use to evade that reality and the responsibilities it brings with it.

That said, there were a few jarring moments, and one of them happened in the interval between my talk on dark ages and Dr. Mark Cochrane’s excellent presentation on the realities of climate change. In the Q&A session after my talk, in response to a question from the audience, I noted how the prestige of science among the general public had taken a beating due to the way that scientific opinions handed down to the public as proven fact so often get retracted after a decade or so, a habit that has caused  many people outside the scientific community to treat all scientific pronouncements with skepticism. I cited several examples of this, and one of them was the way that popular works on climate science in the 1970s and 1980s routinely claimed that the world was on the brink of a new ice age.

Mention the existence of those claims nowadays and you’ll inevitably get denounced as a climate denialist. As my regular readers know, I’m nothing of the kind; I’ve written extensively about the impacts of anthropogenic climate change on the decades and centuries ahead, and my recently published science fiction novel Star’s Reach takes place in a 25th-century America ravaged by the impacts of climate change, in which oranges are grown in what’s now Illinois and Memphis has become a seaport. It’s become popular, for that matter, to insist that those claims of a new ice age never happened; I’d be happy, if anyone’s curious, to cite books published in the 1970s and 1980s for the general public, written by eminent scientists and respected science writers, that described the imminent ice age as a scientifically proven fact, since I have several on my bookshelf.

What I found interesting is that Dr. Cochrane, who is a more than usually careful scholar, jumped to the conclusion that my reference to these popular works of a bygone decade meant that I must be a climate denialist. I corrected him, and he accepted the correction gracefully.  Yet permaculturist and peak oil author Albert Bates then proceeded to miss my point in exactly the same way in his blog post on the event. Bates was present at the discussion, and presumably heard the whole exchange. He’s neither a stupid man nor a malicious one; why, then, so embarrassing and so public a misstatement?

This isn’t a rhetorical question, either; it has an answer, and the answer follows from another of the most popular stories of our culture, the story that says that having the right answer is all you need to get people to listen to you. You’ll find narratives with that theme straight through the popular culture of the last two centuries and more, and it also pervades the rhetoric of science and of scientific history: once the protagonist figures out what’s really going on, whether it’s a murder mystery or the hunt for the molecular structure of DNA, everything falls promptly into place.

Now of course in the real world, things aren’t generally so easy. That was precisely the point I was trying to make in the discussion at the Age of Limits conference:  however convincing the evidence for anthropogenic climate change may be to scientists, it’s failed to convince a great many people outside the scientific enterprise, and one of the things that’s driven that failure is the accelerating decline in the prestige of science in modern industrial society as a whole. Among the roots of that decline, in turn, is the dogmatic tone so often taken when scientists and science writers set out to communicate current scientific opinions to the general public—a tone that differs sharply, it bears remembering, from the far more tentative habits of communication practiced within the scientific community itself.

When climate scientists today insist that they’ve determined conclusively that we’ve entered an age of rising temperatures, I see no reason to doubt them—but they need to recall that many people still remember when writers and speakers with equally impressive scientific credentials insisted with equal vigor that it was just as certain that we’d entered an age of cooling temperatures.  Scientists in the relevant fields know what’s behind the change, but people outside the scientific community don’t; all they see is a flip-flop, and since such flip-flops of scientific opinion have been fairly common in recent decades, members of the general public are by no means as quick as they once were to take scientists at their word. For that matter, when spokespeople for the scientific community insist to the general public nowadays that the flip-flop never took place—that, for example, no reputable scientist or science writer ever claimed to the general public that a new ice age was imminent—those spokespeople simply leave themselves and the scientific community wide open to accusations of bad faith.

We don’t talk about the political dimensions of scientific authority in the modern industrial world. That’s what lies behind the convenient and inaccurate narrative I mentioned earlier, the one that claims that all you have to do to convince people is speak the truth. Question that story, and you have to deal with the mixed motives and tangled cultural politics inseparable from science as a human activity, and above all, you have to discuss the much-vexed relationship between the scientific community and a general public that has become increasingly suspicious of the rhetoric of expertise in contemporary life.

That relationship has dimensions that I don’t think anyone in the scientific community these days has quite grasped. I’ve been told privately by several active online proponents of creationism, for example, that they don’t actually care that much about how the world’s current stock of life forms got there; it’s just that the spluttering Donald Duck frenzy that can reliably be elicited from your common or garden variety rationalist atheist by questioning Darwin’s theory is too entertaining to skip.

Such reflections lead in directions most Americans aren’t willing to go, because they can’t be discussed without raising deeply troubling issues about the conflict between the cult of expertise and what’s left of the traditions of American democracy, and about the social construction of what’s considered real in this as in every other human culture. It’s much easier, and much more comfortable, to insist that the people on the other side of the divide just mentioned are simply stupid and evil, and—as in the example I cited earlier—to force any attempt to talk about the faltering prestige of science in today’s America into a more familiar discourse about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Equally, it’s much easier, and much more comfortable, to insist that the ongoing decline in standards of living here in America is either the fault of the poor or the fault of the rich.  Either evasion makes it possible to ignore all the evidence that suggests that what most Americans think of as a normal standard of living is actually an absurd degree of extravagance, made possibly only briefly by the reckless squandering of the most lavish energy resource our species will ever know.

One of the crucial facts of our age is thus that the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we use to make sense of the events of our lives, have passed their pull date and no longer make sense of the world we experience. The stories our grandchildren use to make sense of their world will be different, from ours, because they will be living in the world that the misguided choices of the last four decades or so will have made—a world that is beginning to take shape around us already, even though most people nowadays are doing their level best not to notice that awkward fact.

Meanwhile, those new stories, the stories of our grandchildren, may already be stirring in the crawlspaces of our collective imagination. In future posts, I’ll be talking about some of the more troubling of those, but this week I’m pleased to have the chance to discuss something a little more cheerful along those lines:  the outcome of this year’s “Space Bats” deindustrial science fiction contest.

Regular readers of this blog will remember that back in the fall of 2011, in the course of discussing the role that the science fiction of previous decades played in shaping our expectations of the future, I put out a call for SF short stories set in a world on the far side of peak oil and climate change. I was delighted by the response: over the five months or so that followed, 63 stories were submitted, and I duly assembled an anthology: After Oil: SF Stories of a Post-Petroleum Future. This January, I announced a second contest of the same sort, with a three-month window in which stories would be accepted.

The response was even more impressive this time around. Over those three months I received 92 story submissions, some from Archdruid Report regulars but many others from people I didn’t know from Robert Heinlein’s off ox, and a remarkably large fraction of them were not only publishable but of very high quality. I despaired of winnowing down the input to one anthology’s worth; fortunately, the publisher came to the rescue by proposing a slight change in plans.

I’m therefore delighted to announce that there will be not one but two new anthologies—one of stories set in the twilight years of our own civilization, one of stories set in the new societies that will rise after the industrial world is a fading memory. The first one, After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis, will include the following stories:

Grant Canterbury’s "Dreaming"

Walt Freitag’s "A Mile a Minute"

Matthew Griffith’s "Promised Land"

Diana Haugh’s "The Big Quiet"

Martin Hensher’s "Crown Prerogative"

J.M. Hughes’ "Byte Heist"

Calvin Jennings’ "A Dead Art Form"

Joseph Nemeth’s "A Break with the Past"

N.N. Scott’s "When It Comes a Gully-Washer"

David Trammel’s "A Fish Tale"

Tony Whelk’s "Al-Kimiya"

Rachel White’s "Story Material"

The second new anthology, After Oil 3: The Years of Rebirth, will include the following stories:

Bill Blondeau’s "The Borax Road Affair"

Phil Harris’ "North of the Wall"

Wylie Harris’ "Dispatches"

Diana Haugh’s "Silver Survivor"

Jason Heppenstall’s "Saga and the Bog People"

J.M. Hughes’ "Dahamri"

Gaianne Jenkins’ "Midwinter Eclipse"

Troy Jones’ "For Our Mushrooms"

Catherine McGuire’s "Singing the World"

David Senti’s "Nuala Thrives"

Al Sevcik’s "Community"

Eric Singletary’s "City of Spirits"

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who contributed a story to the contest; even with a spare anthology to fill, it wasn’t easy to choose among the entries. I’m looking into whether it might be possible to launch a quarterly magazine for deindustrial SF:  there’s clearly an ample supply of good writers who want to tell such stories, and (to judge from sales of the original anthology, and of my deindustrial SF novel Star’s Reach) plenty of people who want to read them as well.

That strikes me as a very good sign. We may not yet be in a position to guess at the stories our grandchildren will tell each other to make sense of the world, but the fact that so many people are already eager to write and read stories about a world on the far side of progress gives me hope that the failed narratives of the past are losing their grip on the collective imagination of our age—and that we may be starting to tell at least a few of the new stories that will make sense of the world after oil.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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