For more than three years now, the themes of these online essays of mine—here, and in my previous blog The Archdruid Report—have had a relatively tight focus on the events of the present day. That hasn’t been accidental by any means. In 2016, strains that had been building for years within Western industrial civilization burst out into the open, upsetting a great many political and cultural applecarts and standing the conventional wisdom on its head. I trust I don’t have to whisper the words “Brexit” and “Trump” to make my point.
None of that was a surprise to those who understand that history is a circle and not a straight line, that civilizations have a life cycle and similar events occur at corresponding points along the great arc of rise and fall. Oswald Spengler, for one, wrote about the events splashed across recent headlines more than a century ago in the pages of The Decline of the West. He noted with dry Teutonic amusement how democracy turns into plutocracy as soon as the well-to-do learn to use money to manipulate the political system, how this leads to the rise of clueless elites too busy lining their pockets to notice what the policies that enrich them are doing to the rest of society, and how ambitious men—as often as not from within the plutocratic class—realize they can rise to power by championing the cause of the deplorables of their time.
Spengler called the charismatic populism that results from this process Caesarism, after one of the more memorable examples of the species. (It’s a running joke here on Ecosophia to refer to our current American example as the Orange Julius.) The conflict between institutionalized plutocracy and insurgent Caesarism, Spengler showed, is an inescapable historical event once a society finishes its millennium or so of growth and settles into its mature form. He predicted back in 1918 that this conflict would be the defining theme of politics across the western world after the turn of the 21st century. Look at today’s news and it’s hard to escape the realization that he was right.
Arnold Toynbee, at once more cautious and more meticulous than Spengler, avoided prophecy and contented himself with precise description of the way the process worked out in the past. In his analysis, successful societies thrive because their governing classes form what he called a creative minority—a group that wins the respect and emulation of the rest of society because it is able to come up with creative solutions for the problems that face a civilization in the course of its history. Too often, though, the governing classes stop innovating in any way that matters, and become more interested in trying to force problems to fit their preferred set of solutions than in adapting solutions to fit the current set of problems. They then become what Toynbee called a dominant minority, which no longer inspires respect and settles instead for grudging obedience.
Once a society is saddled with a dominant minority, there’s a set of standard moves that people within the society use to try to deal with problems that the people in charge are no longer trying to solve. Unless you live under a damp rock, dear reader, you already know all of them. Toynbee calls them detachment, transcendence, futurism, and archaism. Detachment abandons society to its fate by going back to the land, or off to another part of the world, or inward to a subculture airtight enough to shut out current events. Transcendence is the turn to religion—Spengler calls it the Second Religiosity—which comes in the latter days of every civilization, as people frustrated by this world place their hopes on another. Futurism is the attempt to build, or at least daydream about, a perfect society in the future. Archaism, finally, is the quest to Make (insert name of society here) Great Again by rejecting a failed status quo in favor of policies that worked in the past.
Toynbee had his preferences among these—he was a devout Christian, and it showed—but all four of the standard moves can be viable options, and futurism and archaism in particular can be political dynamite. The managerial upper middle class of modern Western industrial society, the creative minority turned dominant minority that runs the institutionalized plutocracy of our time, took over from an older generation of plutocrats in the wake of the Great Depression by way of futurism, borrowing the charisma of technological change by defining the changes that would give them more power as “social progress.” In the usual way of things, the first moves in that direction worked fairly well, the later moves not so much; for forty years now it’s been an open secret—outside the airtight bubbles the privileged inhabit, at least—that things have been getting steadily worse for most Americans in a galaxy of ways. The inevitable blowback followed.
In the long run, in other words, it doesn’t actually matter much whether or not Donald Trump wins a second term in next year’s election. (In the shorter run it matters a great deal, which is why I expect a bitterly fought election with plenty of vote fraud on both sides.) Trump has shown a rising generation of populist politicians that the neoliberal consensus can be defeated, and that there’s a growing and vocal constituency for politicians who reject the neoliberal habit of making token gestures toward environmentalist and social justice ideologies whenever the costs can be pushed off on the working classes, while shilling for the intertwined interests of corporate and government bureaucracies on every issue that matters. There’s still a lot of turbulence ahead, and plenty of tectonic shifts will jolt the political landscape in the years to come, but the neoliberal era is dead and a cartoon frog is hopping over its grave.
That being the case, this is a good time to step back and take the long view again for a while.
Now and again, since my blogging took its detour from discussions of the future, I’ve fielded questions about how well my predictions in past years have stood up. Of course a good many the people who’ve asked those questions have based them on colorful misunderstandings of what I’ve predicted; for example, it’s far from unusual for people to ask me, in tones ranging from baffled to sneering, why society hasn’t collapsed yet as a result of peak oil. Since I never said peak oil would bring about a fast collapse, this has been a source of wry amusement for me, but it’s also pointed up one of the constants of our predicament: the frankly weird way that so many people can’t imagine a future that isn’t either perpetual progress or overnight apocalypse.
Yes, I’ve written about this before. The Archdruid Report in its day had several posts in which I set out to analyze that odd mental hiccup and suggest ways to get around it and think clearly about the future. Back then, at least, it was entertaining to watch people listen and nod and then pop right back into the same bizarre conviction that the only alternative to continuing progress is total catastrophe—as though stagnation and decline, the everyday experiences of most people in most industrial nations for forty years now, can’t possibly happen. The one thing I found that seemed to do a reliable job of shaking people out of that weird mental fog was to talk turkey about what we can expect in the future barrelling down upon us—so that’s what we’ll do here.
What gives this a special piquance, at least to me, is that we can do this by turning back the clock to those not particularly thrilling days of yesteryear, the last time that the hard limits to economic growth were being talked about—yes, that would be during and after the oil price spike of 2008-2009. Veteran readers of The Archdruid Report and the other long-vanished peak oil forums of those days will recall one very large and vocal group of people, online and off, who insisted that technological innovation would surely save the day, and sometime soon we’d power our absurdly extravagant lifestyles by way of something other than fossil fuels. They will recall another very large and vocal group of people, online and off, who insisted that Transition Towns or some parallel ideology would save the day, and sometime soon we’d enthusiastically embrace lifestyles that, oddly enough, none of the proponents seemed all that interested in taking up here and now. Finally, they will recall yet another very large and vocal group of people, online and off, who insisted that some vast apocalyptic event would make the whole matter moot, and sometime soon a handful of shell-shocked survivors would be scavenging for raw materials or reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles while the other seven billion of us, as the colorful French saying has it, chewed dandelions from the root end.
There were a few of us who said something much less popular. We predicted that the grand technological breakthroughs were not going to happen, and the grand social awakenings were not going to happen, and the grand apocalyptic catastrophes were not going to happen. What’s more, we offered solid reasons why none of these things were going to happen. We predicted instead that demand destruction and an assortment of temporary gimmicks would keep things rolling on, that measures of quality of life would continue to slide downhill, that politics and society would become increasingly fractured and irrational as people frantically tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, and that the prolonged and ragged process of decline I’ve called the Long Descent would continue to pick up speed.
We got denounced six ways from Sunday for saying these things. I can’t speak for the other people who made such points, but it was a routine amusement for me to have one and the same post denounced in blistering terms as mere nasty pessimism by believers in technofixes and great social transformations, and as mere blind optimism by believers in overnight apocalypse. At this point, though, looking back over the decade and a bit that’s passed since oil prices took off for the Moon in 2008, two things are quite clear. The first is that the people who busied themselves with these denunciations were wrong. The second is that those of us who stuck to our guns and disagreed with those wildly popular claims were right.
And now? I trust it won’t be an unbearable surprise to my readers when I predict that the decades ahead are going to see much more of the same thing.
To begin with, the hard realities of our predicament have not changed. On the day before I posted this essay, humans burned around 100,000,000 barrels of crude oil, 21,000,000 tons of coal, and 9,000,000,000 cubic meters of natural gas. We burned around the same amount the day before that, too, and we’ll burn the same amount today, tomorrow, and the day after. The vast majority of all the energy human beings use—well over 80%, including nearly all transport fuel—comes from those three forms of fossil carbon. (Solar power and windpower, despite all the ballyhoo, account for only about 3% of total energy production worldwide.) All that carbon has to come from somewhere, and all of it goes somewhere else once it’s burnt.
Where nearly all of that carbon comes from is the world’s steadily depleting fossil fuel reserves. Are fossil fuel companies scouring the globe to find new reserves? You bet. Do the new reserves they find each year equal the annual rate at which old reserves are being sucked dry? Not by a long shot. If you were spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and your income was only ten thousand a year, even if you had a fair amount in savings to start with, you’d be in trouble sooner or later. The same logic applies to fossil fuels.
Does that mean that sometime soon industrial civilization is going to crash to ruin because it’s run out of fossil fuels? No, though you’ll hear that claim made at high volume in the years ahead as the price of oil climbs further and then spikes. Does it mean that the solar and wind technologies that provide so small a trickle of global energy production today will miraculously become able to power our absurdly extravagant lifestyles all by themselves, or that some exciting new energy technology will pop up out of nowhere to solve all our problems? No, though you’ll also hear those claims being made at high volume. Those same claims got made during the energy crises of the 1970s and the 2000s, too, and I encourage my readers to look around and see how accurate they turned out to be.
No, what will happen is that energy prices will spike, people will panic, economies will lurch and shudder and go through troubled times. Then another round of frantic jerry-rigging will find some liquid fuel source even dirtier and more costly than shale oil and another round of demand destruction will push more people into poverty, so that the charade can keep going. The price of fuel will never go down to what it was before the spike, energy costs will become an even greater drain on economic activity, the global financial system will be twisted into ever more baroque shapes to preserve the fiction of a free market, and more of what used to count as a normal lifestyle will become inaccessible to more people.
Meanwhile, the people who are expecting grand technological breakthroughs or grand social movements or grand apocalyptic disasters will be left in the dust by events, wondering what happened…just as they did when those same things failed to appear in the wake of the last two oil price spikes. Yes, they’re exactly the same things, too, right down to the details; it’s a reliable source of amusement to me that the technologies being promoted these days as game-changing energy innovations—wind power, solar photovoltaic power, breeder reactors, nuclear fusion, and the list goes on—have been promoted in exactly the same terms since my boyhood. Nor, to be frank, has there been any more noticeable innovation in grand social movements or grand apocalyptic disasters. As usual in our culture, the more bleeding-edge and innovative an idea is supposed to be, the more certain you can be that it’s an utterly unoriginal rehash of something that was already old hat when today’s nonagenarians were born.
But I digress. Where nearly all of the carbon goes, in turn, is the earth’s atmosphere, where it messes with the delicate balance of the global climate. It’s going to be a couple of decades before it’ll be possible to talk about this and not get mired in endless misunderstandings, because the climate activists have not only done a stunningly bad job of making their case, they’ve allowed their cause to be hijacked and distorted by special interests with a range of unhelpful agendas. It was an act of impressive scientific stupidity, for that matter, to lump the complex shifts we face under the simplistic label “global warming”—Thomas Friedman’s label “global weirding” was much more accurate, but it didn’t fit the narrative the activists were pushing.
The Earth’s climate, reduced to simplest terms, is a heat engine that runs off the difference in temperature between the Sun and deep space. Back in 1772, James Watt launched the industrial revolution by figuring out that he could boost the efficiency of the crude steam engines then in use, and so get more work out of them, by reducing the rate at which heat was lost from the engine to the environment. Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere does exactly that, and the work that the Earth’s climate does is called “weather.” Thus the result of greenhouse gas pollution isn’t a steady increase in temperature—it’s an increase in all kinds of extreme weather events, coupled just now with a shift in climate bands that’s warming the poles.
Does that mean that sometime very soon industrial civilization is going to crash to ruin because of some climate-related catastrophe? No, though you’ll hear that claim made at high volume in the years ahead. Does it mean that solar and wind power or some new energy technology will save the day? No, though you’ll also hear those claims being made at equally high volume. Here again, those same claims got made during the previous energy price spikes of the 1970s and the 2000, with equally dubious results.
No, what will happen is that the annual cost of weather-related disasters will move raggedly upward with each passing year, as it’s been doing for decades, loading another increasingly heavy burden on economic activity and putting more of what used to count as a normal lifestyle out of reach for more people. With each new round of disasters, less and less will get rebuilt, as insurance companies wriggle out of payouts they can’t afford to make and government funding for disaster recovery becomes less and less adequate to meet the demand. Rural areas in the US that are unusually vulnerable to weather-related disasters will quietly be allowed to return to 19th century conditions, and poor neighborhoods near the coastlines will be tacitly handed over to the slowly rising seas. Meanwhile, the people who are expecting grand technological breakthroughs or grand social movements or grand apocalyptic disasters will be left in the dust by events, wondering what happened.
That’s the shape of our future. It bears remembering, too, that fossil fuels aren’t the only nonrenewable resources that are being extracted at a breakneck pace just now with no thought for tomorrow. For that matter, the global climate isn’t the only natural system on which we depend that’s being disrupted by human pollution in ways that are already circling around behind us and kicking us in the backside. As Kenneth Boulding pointed out a long time ago, the only people who think that you can have limitless economic expansion on a finite planet are madmen and economists. In the real world—the world the rest of us, willy-nilly, are constrained to inhabit—actions have equal and opposite reactions, and trying to push the pedal of economic growth all the way to the metal all the time simply means that you run out of gas sooner.
That’s the logic of the Long Descent: the slow, ragged, unevenly paced, but inexorable process by which a civilization that’s overshot its resource base winds up in history’s compost bin. The Western world has been on that trajectory now for just over a century, and probably has another couple of centuries to go before things bottom out in a deindustrial dark age. Over the months ahead, with the usual interruptions, I plan on surveying what’s happened along each of the trajectories that are dragging us down. Two weeks from now we’ll talk about the first of those: the imminent return of peak oil.
Photo: Long Room Interior, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland (2015). Author: Diliff. Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Long_Room_Interior,_Trinity_College_Dublin,_Ireland_-_Diliff.jpg