Retrotopia: A Distant Scent of Blood

Wed, 2016-05-18 13:57
This is the sixteenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator, having recovered from a bout of the flu, goes for a walk, meets someone he’s encountered before, and begins to understand why the Lakeland Republic took the path it did...
***********The next morning I felt pretty good, all things considered, and got up not too much later than usual. It was bright and clear, as nice an autumn day as you could ask for. I knew I had two days to make up and a lot of discussions and negotiations with the Lakeland Republic government still waited, but I’d been stuck in my room for two days and wanted to stretch my legs a bit before I headed back into another conference room at the Capitol. I compromised by calling Melanie Berger and arranging to meet with her and some other people from Meeker’s staff after lunch. That done, once I’d finished my morning routine, I headed down the stairs and out onto the street.
I didn’t have any particular destination in mind, just fresh air and a bit of exercise, and two or three random turns brought me within sight of the Capitol. That sent half a dozen trains of thought scurrying off in a bunch of directions, and one of them reminded me that I hadn’t seen a scrap of news for better than two days. Another couple of blocks and I got to Kaufer’s News, where the same scruffy-looking woman was sitting on the same wooden stool, surrounded by the same snowstorm of newspapers and magazines. I bought that day’s Toledo Blade, and since it was still way too early to put anything into my stomach, I crossed the street, found a park bench in front of the Capitol that had sunlight all over it, sat down and started reading.
There was plenty of news.  The president of Texas had just denounced the Confederacy for drilling for natural gas too close to the Texas border, and the Confederate government had issued the kind of curt response that might mean nothing and might mean trouble.  The latest word from the Antarctic melting season was worse than before; Wilkes Land had chucked up a huge jokulhlaup—yeah, I had to look the word up the first time I saw it, too; it means a flood of meltwater from underneath a glacier—that tore loose maybe two thousand square miles of ice and had half the southern Indian Ocean full of bergs.
There was another report out on the lithium crisis, from another bunch of experts who pointed out yet again that the world was going to run out of lithium for batteries in another half dozen years and all the alternatives were much more expensive; I knew better than to think that the report would get any more action than the last half dozen had.  Back home, meanwhile, the leaders of the Dem-Reps had a laundry list of demands for the new administration, most of which involved Montrose ditching her platform and adopting theirs instead.  There’d been no response from the Montrose transition team, which was probably just as well. I knew what Ellen would say to that and it wasn’t fit to print.
Still, the thing I read first was an article on the satellite situation. There was a squib on the front page about that, and a big article with illustrations on pages four and five. It was as bad as I’d feared. The weather satellite that got hit on Friday had thrown big chunks of itself all over, and two more satellites had already been hit.  The chain reaction was under way, and in a year or so putting a satellite into the midrange orbits would be a waste of money—a few days, a week at most, and some chunk of scrap metal will come whipping out of nowhere at twenty thousand miles an hour and turn your umpty-billion-yuan investment into a cloud of debris ready to share the love with anything else in orbit.
That reality was already hitting stock markets around the world—telecoms were plunging, and so was every other economic sector that depended too much on satellites. Most of the Chinese manufacturing sector was freaking out, too, because a lot of their exports go by way of the Indian Ocean, and satellite data’s the only thing that keeps container ships out of the way of icebergs. Economists were trying to rough out the probable hit to global GDP, and though estimates were all over the map, none of them was pretty.  The short version was that everybody was running around screaming.
Everybody outside the Lakeland Republic, that is. The satellite crisis was an academic concern there. I mean that literally; the paper quoted a professor of astronomy from Toledo University, a Dr. Marjorie Vanich, about the work she and her grad students were doing on the mathematics of orbital collisions, and that was the only consequence the whole mess was having inside the Lakeland borders. I shook my head. Progress was going to win out eventually, I told myself, but the Republic’s retro policies certainly seemed to deflect a good many hassles in the short term.
I finished the first section, set down the paper. Sitting there in the sunlight of a clear autumn day, with a horsedrawn cab going clip-clop on the street in front of me, schoolchildren piling out of a streetcar and heading toward the Capitol for a field trip, pedestrians ducking into Kaufer’s News or the little hole-in-the-wall café half a block from it, and the green-and-blue Lakeland Republic flag flapping leisurely above the whole scene, all the crises and commotions in the newspaper I’d just read might as well have been on the far side of the Moon. For the first time I found myself wishing that the Lakeland Republic could find some way to survive over the long term after all.  The thought that there could be someplace on the planet where all those crises just didn’t matter much was really rather comforting.
I got up, stuck the paper into one of the big patch pockets of my trench coat, and started walking, going nowhere in particular. A clock on the corner of a nearby building told me I still had better than an hour to kill before lunch. I looked around, and decided to walk all the way around the Capitol, checking out the big green park that surrounded it and the businesses and government offices nearby. I thought of the Legislative Building back home in Philadelphia, with its walls of glass and metal and its perpetually leaky roof; I thought of the Presidential Mansion twelve blocks away, another ultramodern eyesore, where one set of movers hauling Bill Barfield’s stuff out would be crossing paths just then with another set of movers hauling Ellen Montrose’s stuff in; I thought of the huge bleak office blocks sprawling west and south from there, where people I knew were busy trying to figure out how to cope with a rising tide of challenges that didn’t look as though it was ever going to ebb.
I got to one end of the park, turned the corner. A little in from the far corner was what looked like a monument of some sort, a big slab of dark red stone up on end, with something written on it. Shrubs formed a rough ring around it, and a couple of trees looked on from nearby. I wondered what it was commemorating, started walking that way. When I got closer, I noticed that there was a ring of park benches inside the circle of shrubs, and one person sitting on one of the benches; it wasn’t until I was weaving through the gap between two shrubs that I realized it was the same Senator Mary Chenkin I’d met at the Atheist Assembly the previous Sunday. By the time I’d noticed that, she’d spotted me and got to her feet, and so I went over and did and said the polite thing, and we got to talking.
The writing on the monument didn’t enlighten me much. It had a date on it—29 APRIL 2024—and nothing else. I’d just about decided to ask Chenkin about it when she said, “I bet they didn’t brief you about this little memento of ours—and they probably should have, if you’re going to make any kind of sense of what we’ve done here in the Lakeland Republic. Do you have a few minutes?”
“Most of an hour,” I said. “If you’ve got the time—”
“I should be at a committee meeting later on, but there should be plenty of time.” She waved me to the bench and then perched on the front of it, facing me.
“You probably know about DM-386 corn, Mr. Carr,” she said. “The stuff that had genes from poisonous starfish spliced into it.”
“Yeah.” Ugly memories stirred.  “I would have had a kid brother if it wasn’t for that.”
“You and a lot of others.” She shook her head.  “Gemotek, the corporation that made it, used to have its regional headquarters right here.” She gestured across the park toward the Capitol. “A big silver glass and steel skyscraper complex, with a plaza facing this way.  It got torn down right after the war, the steel went to make rails for the Toledo streetcar system, and the site—well, you’ll understand a little further on why we chose to put our Capitol there.
“But it was 2020, as I recall, when Gemotek scientists held a press conference right here to announce that DM-386 was going to save the world from hunger.” Another shake of her head dismissed the words. “Did they plant much of it up where your family lived?”
“Not to speak of.  We were in what used to be upstate New York, and corn wasn’t a big crop.”
“Well, there you are. Here, we’re the buckle on the corn belt:  the old states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and across into Iowa and Nebraska. Gemotek marketed DM-386 heavily via exclusive contracts with local seed stores, and it was literally everywhere. They insisted it was safe, the government insisted it was safe, the experts said the same thing—but nobody bothered to test it on pregnant women.”
“I remember,” I said.
“And down here, it wasn’t just in the food supply.  The pollen had the toxin in it, and that was in the air every spring.  After the first year’s crop, what’s more, it got into the water table in a lot of places. So there were some counties where the live birth rate dropped by half over a two year period.”
She leaned toward me. “And here’s the thing. Gemotek kept insisting that it couldn’t possibly be their corn, and the government backed them. They brought in one highly paid expert after another to tell us that some new virus or other was causing the epidemic of stillbirths. It all sounded plausible, until you found out that the only countries in the world that had this supposed virus were countries that allowed DM-386 corn to cross their borders. The media wouldn’t mention that, and if you said something about it on the old internet, or any other public venue, Gemotek would slap you with a libel suit. They’d win, too—they had all the expert opinion on their side that money could buy. All the farmers and the other  people of the corn belt had on their side was unbiased epidemiology and too many dead infants.
“So by the fall and winter of 2023, the entire Midwest was a powderkeg. A lot of farmers stopped planting DM-386, even though Gemotek had a clause in the sales agreement that let them sue you for breach of contract if you did that. Seed stores that stocked it got burnt to the ground, and Gemotek sales staff who went out into farm country didn’t always come back. There were federal troops here by then—not just Homeland Security, also regular Army with tanks and helicopters they’d brought up from the South after the trouble in Knoxville and Chattanooga the year before—and you had armed bands of young people and military vets springing up all over the countryside. It was pretty bad.
“By April, it was pretty clear that next to nobody in the region was planting Gemotek seeds—not just DM-386, anything from that company. Farmers were letting their farms go fallow if they couldn’t get seed they thought was safe. That’s when Michael Yates, who was the CEO of Gemotek, said he was going to come to Toledo and talk some sense into the idiots who thought there was something wrong with his product. By all accounts, yes, that’s what he said.”
All of a sudden I remembered how the story ended, but didn’t say anything.
“So he came here—right where we’re sitting now.  The company made a big fuss in the media, put up a platform out in front of the building, put half a dozen security guards around it, and thought that would do the job. Yates was a celebrity CEO—” Unexpectedly, she laughed. “That phrase sounds so strange nowadays. Still, there were a lot of them before the Second Civil War: flashy, outspoken, hungry for publicity. He was like that. He flew in, and came out here, and started mouthing the same canned talking points Gemotek flacks had been rehashing since the first wave of stillbirths hit the media.
“I think he even believed them.” She shrugged. “He wasn’t an epidemiologist or even a geneticist, just a glorified salesman who thought his big paycheck made him smarter than anyone else, and he lived the sort of bicoastal lifestyle the rich favored in those days.  If he’d ever set foot in the ‘flyover states’ before then, I never heard of it. But of course the crowd wasn’t having any of it. Something like nine thousand people showed up.  They were shouting at him, and he was trying to make himself heard, and somebody lunged for the platform and a security guard panicked and opened fire, and the crowd mobbed the platform. It was all over in maybe five minutes. As I recall, two of the guards survived. The other four were trampled and beaten to death, and nineteen people were shot—and Michael Yates was quite literally torn to shreds. There was hardly enough left of him to bury.
“So that’s what happened on April 29th, 2024. The crowd scattered as soon as it was all over, before Homeland Security troops could get here from their barracks; the feds declared a state of emergency and shut Toledo down, and then two days later the riots started down in Birmingham and the National Guard units sent to stop them joined the rioters. Your historians probably say that that’s where and when the Second Civil War started, and they’re right—but this is where the seed that grew into the Lakeland Republic got planted.”
“Hell of a seed,” I said, for want of anything better.
“I won’t argue. But this—”  Her gesture indicated the monument, and the shadow of a vanished building.  “—this is a big part of why the whole Midwest went up like a rocket once the Birmingham riots turned serious, and why nothing the federal government did to get people to lay down their arms did a bit of good. Every family I knew back in those days had either lost a child or knew someone who had—but it wasn’t just that. There had been plenty of other cases where the old government put the financial interests of big corporations ahead of the welfare of its people—hundreds of them, really—but this thing was that one straw too many.
“And then, when the fighting was over, the constitutional convention was meeting, and people from the World Bank and the IMF flew in to offer us big loans for reconstruction, care to guess what one of their very first conditions was?”
I didn’t have to answer; she saw on my face that I knew the story. “Exactly, Mr. Carr. The provisional government had already passed a law banning genetically modified organisms until adequate safety tests could be done, and the World Bank demanded that we repeal it.  To them it was just a trade barrier. Of course all of us in the provisional government knew perfectly well that if we agreed to that, we’d be facing Michael Yates’ fate in short order, so we called for a referendum.”
She shook her head, laughed reminiscently. “The World Bank people went ballistic. I had one of their economists with his face six inches from mine, shouting threats for fifteen minutes in half-coherent English without a break. But we held the referendum, the no vote came in at 89%, we told the IMF and the World Bank to pack their bags and go home, and the rest of our history unfolded as you’ve seen—and a lot of it was because of a pavement streaked with blood, right here.”
Something in her voice just then made me consider her face closely, and read something in her expression that I don’t think she’d intended me to see. “You were there, weren’t you?” I asked.
She glanced up at me, looked away, and after a long moment nodded.
A long moment passed. The clop-clop of a horsedrawn taxi came close, passed on into the distance.  “Here’s the thing,” she said finally.  “All of us who were alive then—well, those who didn’t help tear Michael Yates to pieces helped tear the United States of America to pieces.  It was the same in both cases:  people who had been hurt and deceived and cheated until they couldn’t bear it any longer, who finally lashed out in blind rage and then looked down and saw the blood on their hands.  After something like that, you have to come to terms with the fact that what’s done can never be undone, and try to figure out what you can do that will make it turn out to be worthwhile after all.”
She took a watch out of her purse, then, glanced at it, and said, “Oh dear. They’ve been waiting for me in the committee room for five minutes now. Thank you for listening, Mr. Carr—will I see you at the Assembly next Sunday?”
“That’s the plan,” I told her. She got up, we made the usual polite noises, and she hurried away toward the Capitol. Maybe she was late for her meeting, and maybe she’d said more than she’d intended to say and wanted to end the conversation. I didn’t greatly care, as I wanted a little solitude myself just then.
I’d known about DM-386 corn, of course, and my family wasn’t the only one I knew that lost a kid to the fatal lung defects the starfish stuff caused if the mother got exposed to it in the wrong trimester. For that matter, plenty of other miracle products have turned out to have side effects nasty enough to rack up a fair-sized body count. No, it was thinking of the pleasant old lady I’d just been sitting with as a young woman with blood dripping from her hands.
Every nation starts that way. The Atlantic Republic certainly did—I knew people back home who’d been guerrillas in the Adirondacks and the Alleghenies, and they’d talk sometimes about things they’d seen and done that made my blood run cold.  The old United States got its start the same way, two and a half centuries further back. I knew that, but I hadn’t been thinking about it when I’d sat on the park bench musing about how calm the Lakeland Republic seemed in the middle of all the consternation outside its borders. It hadn’t occurred to me what had gone into making that calm happen.
The breeze whispering past the stone monument seemed just then to have a distant scent of blood on it. I turned and walked away.

A Few Notes on Burkean Conservatism

Wed, 2016-05-11 17:15
Several times recently, in posts on this blog discussing the vagaries of current American politics, I’ve had occasion to reference my own political philosophy by name. This has caused a certain amount of confusion and curiosity, because the moniker I mentioned—“moderate Burkean conservative”—falls nowhere on the narrow range of political opinions allowed into our collective discourse these days.
Now of course a good part of the confusion arises because the word “conservative” no longer means what it once meant—that is to say, a person who wants to conserve something. In today’s America, conservatives who actually want to conserve are as rare as liberals who actually want to liberate.  The once-significant language of an earlier era has had the meaning sucked right out of it, the better to serve as camouflage for a kleptocratic feeding frenzy in which both establishment parties participate with equal abandon. Putting meaning back into the words can be a risky proposition, in turn, because so many Americans are used to waving them about as arbitrary noises linked to an assortment of vague emotions, the common currency of what passes for thought in so much of modern American life.
Nonetheless, I think the risk is worth taking, if only because a genuine conservatism—that is, a point of view oriented toward finding things worth conserving, and then doing something to conserve them—is one of the few options that offer any workable strategies for the future as the United States accelerates along the overfamiliar trajectory of a democracy in terminal crisis.
Let’s start with the least familiar of the terms I mentioned above, “Burkean.” The reference is to the Anglo-Irish writer, philosopher, and politician Edmund Burke (1729-1797), generally considered the founder of the Anglo-American conservative tradition. This is all the more interesting in that Burke himself was none of the things that gets labeled “conservative” in today’s America. For example, while he was himself an Anglican Christian, he defended the rights of Catholics to freedom of worship at a time when this was a very unpopular stance—roughly on a par with defending the rights of Satanists in today’s America—and lent his own home to a group of Hindus traveling in Britain who had been refused any other place to celebrate one of their religious holidays.
He was also an outspoken supporter of the American colonists in their attempts to seek redress against the British government’s predatory and punitive trade policies, and maintained his support even when all peaceful options had been exhausted and the colonists rose in rebellion. Yet this was the man who, toward the end of his life, penned Reflections on the Revolution in France, which critiqued the French revolutionaries in incisive terms, and which has much the same place in the history of Anglo-American conservatism that The Communist Manifesto has in the history of the modern radical left.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that Burkean conservatives quote Burke’s writings the way Marxists quote Marx or Objectivists quote Ayn Rand. Like other human beings, Burke was a blend of strengths and weaknesses, principles and pragmatism, and the political culture of his time and place accepted behavior that most people nowadays consider very dubious indeed.  Those of my readers who want to hear what Burke had to say can find Reflections on the Revolution in Franceonline, or in any decent used book store; those who want to engage in ad hominem argument can find plenty of ammunition in any biography of Burke they care to consult. What I propose to do here is something a bit different—to take Burke’s core ideas and set them out in a frame many of my readers will recognize at once.
The foundation of Burkean conservatism is the recognition that human beings aren’t half as smart as they like to think they are. One implication of this recognition is that when human beings insist that the tangled realities of politics and history can be reduced to some set of abstract principles simple enough for the human mind to understand, they’re wrong. Another is that when human beings try to set up a system of government based on abstract principles, rather than allowing it to take shape organically out of historical experience, the results will pretty reliably be disastrous.
What these imply, in turn, is that social change is not necessarily a good thing. It’s always possible that a given change, however well-intentioned, will result in consequences that are worse than the problems that the change is supposed to fix. In fact, if social change is pursued in a sufficiently clueless fashion, the consequences can cascade out of control, plunging a nation into failed-state conditions, handing it over to a tyrant, or having some other equally unwanted result. What’s more, the more firmly the eyes of would-be reformers are fixed on appealing abstractions, and the less attention they pay to the lessons of history, the more catastrophic the outcome will generally be.
That, in Burke’s view, was what went wrong in the French Revolution. His thinking differed sharply from continental European conservatives, in that he saw no reason to object to the right of the French people to change a system of government that was as incompetent as it was despotic. It was, the way they went about it—tearing down the existing system of government root and branch, and replacing it with a shiny new system based on fashionable abstractions—that was problematic. What made that problematic, in turn, was that it simply didn’t work  Instead of establishing an ideal republic of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the wholesale reforms pushed through by the National Assembly plunged France into chaos, handed the nation over to a pack of homicidal fanatics, and then dropped it into the waiting hands of an egomaniacal warlord named Napoleon Bonaparte.
Two specific bad ideas founded in abstractions helped feed the collapse of revolutionary France into chaos, massacre, tyranny, and pan-European war. The first was the conviction, all but universal among the philosopheswhose ideas guided the revolution, that human nature is entirely a product of the social order. According to this belief, the only reason people don’t act like angels is that they live in an unjust society, and once that is replaced by a just society, why, everybody would behave the way the moral notions of the philosophes insisted they should. Because they held this belief, in turn, the National Assembly did nothing to protect their shiny up-to-date system against such old-fashioned vices as lust for power and partisan hatred, with results that made the streets of Paris run with blood.
The second bad idea had the same effect as the first. This was the conviction, also all but universal among the philosophes, that history moved inevitably in the direction they wanted: from superstition to reason, from tyranny to liberty, from privilege to equality, and so on. According to this belief, all the revolution had to do to bring liberty, equality, and fraternity was to get rid of the old order, and voila—liberty, equality, and fraternity would pop up on cue. Once again, things didn’t work that way. Where the philosophes insisted that history moves ever upward toward a golden age in the future, and the European conservatives who opposed them argued that history slides ever downward from a golden age in the past, Burke’s thesis—and the evidence of history—implies that history has no direction at all.
The existing laws and institutions of a society, Burke proposed, grow organically out of that society’s history and experience, and embody a great deal of practical wisdom. They also have one feature that the abstraction-laden fantasies of world-reformers don’t have, which is that they have been proven to work. Any proposed change in laws and institutions thus needs to start by showing, first, that there’s a need for change; second, that the proposed change will solve the problem it claims to solve; and third, that the benefits of the change will outweigh its costs. Far more often than not, when these questions are asked, the best way to redress any problem with the existing order of things turns out to be the option that causes as little disruption as possible, so that what works can keep on working.
That is to say, Burkean conservatism can be summed up simply as the application of the precautionary principle to the political sphere.
The precautionary principle? That’s the common-sense rule that before you do anything, you need to figure out whether it’s going to do more good than harm. We don’t do things that way in the modern industrial world. We dump pesticides into the biosphere, carbon dioxide into the air, and inadequately tested drugs into our bodies, and then figure out from the results what kind of harm they’re going to cause. That’s a thoroughly stupid way of going about things, and the vast majority of the preventable catastrophes that are dragging modern industrial society down to ruin result directly from that custom.
Behind it, in turn, lies one of the bad ideas cited above—the notion that history moves inevitably in the direction we want. Yes, that’s the myth of progress, the bizarre but embarrassingly widespread notion that history is marching ever onward and upward, and so anything new is better just because it’s new, which keeps so many people from asking obvious questions about where our civilization is headed and whether any sane person would want to go there. I’ve discussed this in quite a few earlier posts here, as well as in my book After Progress; I mention it here to point out one of the ways that the political views I’m explaining just now interface with the other ideas I’ve discussed here and elsewhere.
The way that a moderate Burkean conservatism works in practice will be easiest to explain by way of a specific example. With this in mind, I’m going to go out of my way to offend everyone, by presenting a thoroughly conservative argument—in the original, Burkean sense of that word “conservative,” of course—in favor of the right to same-sex marriage.
We’ll have to pause first for a moment, though, to talk about that word “right.” This is necessary because by and large, when Americans hear the word “right,” their brains melt into a puddle of goo. The assumption these days seems to be that there’s some indefinite number of abstract rights hovering out there in notional space, and all of them are absolute and incontrovertible, so that all you have to say is “I have a right to [whatever]!” and everybody is supposed to give you whatever it is right away. Of course everybody doesn’t, and the next step is the kind of shrill shouting match that makes up so much of American political nonconversation these days, in which partisans of the right to X and partisans of the right to Y yell denunciations at each other for trying to deprive each other of their rights.
If you happen to be a religious person, and believe in a religion that teaches that God or the gods handed down a set of rules by which humans are supposed to live, then it probably does make sense to talk like this, because you believe that rights exist in the mind of the deity or deities in question. If you’re not a religious person, and claim to have a right that other people don’t recognize, you’ll have a very interesting time answering questions like these: in what way does this supposed right exist? How do you “have it”—and how do the rest of us tell the difference between this right you claim to have and, say, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement on your part?
All these confusions come from the attempt to claim that rights have some kind of abstract existence of their own. To the Burkean conservative, this is utter nonsense. A right, from the Burkean point of view, is an agreement among the members of a community to allow some sort of behavior. That’s what it is, and that’s all it is. The right to vote, say, exists because the people of a given nation, acting through political institutions, confers it on a certain class of persons—say, all adult citizens.
What if you don’t have a right, and believe that you should have it? That’s called “having an opinion.” There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion, but it doesn’t confer a right. If you want to have the right you think you should have, your job is to get your community to confer it on you. In a perfect world, there would no doubt be some instant, foolproof way to establish a right, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where the slow, awkward tools of representative democracy and judicial review, backed up by public debate, are the least easily abused options we’ve yet found to accomplish this task. (That doesn’t mean, please note, that they can’t be abused; it means that they’re not quite as prone to abuse as, say, the institutions of theocracy or military dictatorship.)
With that in mind, we can proceed to the right to same-sex marriage. The first question to ask is whether government has any business getting involved in the issue at all. That’s not a minor question. The notion that legislation is the solution to every problem has produced a vast number of avoidable disasters. In this case, though, what prevented same-sex couples from marrying was governmental regulations. Changing those regulations requires governmental action.
The second question to ask is whether government has any compelling interest in the existing state of affairs. History shows that letting government interfere in people’s private lives is a very risky thing to do, and while it can be necessary, there has to be a compelling interest to justify it—for example, in the case of laws prohibiting child abuse, the compelling interest of protecting children against violence. No such compelling interest justifies government interference in the marital decisions of legally competent, consenting adults; as noted further on, “Ewww, gross!” does not count as a compelling interest.
The third question to ask is whether the people who will be affected by the change actually want the change. That’s not a minor question, either; history is full of grand projects, supposedly meant to help some group of people, that were rejected by the people who were to be “helped,” and those inevitably turn out badly. In this case, though, there were plenty of same-sex couples who wanted to get married and couldn’t. Notice also that the proposed change was permissive rather than mandatory—that is, same-sex couples could get married, but they could also stay unmarried. As a general rule of thumb, permissive regulations don’t require the same level of suspicion as mandatory regulations.
The fourth question to ask is whether anyone would be harmed by the change. Here it’s important to keep in mind that “harmed” does not mean “offended;” nor, for that matter, are you harmed by being kept from forcing others to do what you want them to do. One of the eternal annoyances of liberty is that others inevitably use it in ways that you and I find offensive.  We put up with the inconvenience because that’s the price of having liberty ourselves. Claims that this or that person is going to be harmed by a change thus need to evince specific, concrete, measurable harm. In this case, that standard was not met, as there are no Purple Hearts issued for being butthurt.
The fifth question is whether the proposed change is a wholly new right, a significant expansion of an existing right, or the extension of an existing right in its current form to a group of people who did not previously have it. Creating a wholly new right can be a risky endeavor, as it’s hard to figure out in advance how that will interact with existing rights and institutions. A significant expansion of an existing right is less hazardous, but it still needs to be approached with care. Extending an existing right in its current form to people who don’t previously have it, by contrast, tends to be the safest of changes, since it’s easy to figure out what the results will be—all you have to do is see what effect it has had in its more restricted application. In this case, an existing right was to be extended to same-sex couples, who would have the same rights and responsibilities as couples who married under existing law.
The sixth question, given that the right in question is being extended in its current form to a group of people who didn’t previously have it, is whether that right has been extended before. In this case, the answer is yes. Marriage between people of different races used to be illegal in many American states. When extending the right of marriage to mixed-race couples was being debated, the same arguments deployed against same-sex marriage got used, but all of them amounted in practice to someone being offended. Mixed-race marriages were legalized, a lot of mixed-race couples got married, none of the horrible consequences imagined by the opposition ever got around to happening, and that was that.
So, to sum up, we have a group of people who want a permissive regulation granting them a right already held by other people. No actual harm has been demonstrated by those opposed to granting that right, and no compelling interest prevents government from granting that right. The same right has been extended before with no negative consequences, and a very simple change in the wording of existing marriage laws will confer the right. Under these circumstances, there is vastly more justification for granting the right than for refusing it, and it should therefore be granted.
No doubt some people will take offense at so mealy-mouthed an adding up of pros and cons. Where are the ringing affirmations of justice, equality, and other grand abstract principles? That, of course, is exactly the point. In the real world, grand abstract principles count for little. In a society that values liberty—not, please note, as a grand abstract principle, but as a mutual agreement that people can do as they wish so long as that doesn’t infringe on the established rights of others—what matters when someone petitions for redress of a grievance is simply whether that petition can be granted without any such infringement. The questions asked above, and the institutions of representative democracy and judicial review, are there to see to it that this happens. Do they always succeed? Of course not; they just do a marginally better job than any other system. In the real world, that’s justification enough.
What about the religious communities that are opposed to that right? (This is where I’m going to shift gears from offending my readers on the rightward end of things to offending those on the other end of the political spectrum.) Conservative Christian groups are a religious minority in America today, and it’s a well-established rule in American law and custom that reasonable accommodation should be made to religious minorities when this can be done without violating the agreed-upon rights of others. That doesn’t give conservative Christians the right to force other people to follow conservative Christian teachings, any more than it would give Jews the right to forbid the sale of pork in America’s grocery stores. It does mean that conservative Christians should not be forced to participate in activities they consider sinful, any more than Jewish delicatessens should be forced to sell pork.
By and large, businesses that serve the general public are rightly required to serve the general public, rather than picking and choosing who they will or won’t serve, but there are valid exceptions, and religion is one of them. I’m told that in New York State, orthodox Jewish businesses are legally allowed to post signage stating that Jewish religious law applies on the premises, and this exempts them from certain laws governing other businesses; thus, for example, a woman who enters such a business with uncovered hair will not be served.  It would be a reasonable accommodation for conservative Christian businesses that cater to weddings to be able to post signage noting that they only provide services to the kinds of weddings authorized by their own religious laws. That would let same-sex couples take their business elsewhere; it would also let people who support the right of same-sex marriage know which businesses to boycott, just as it would let conservative Christians support their co-religionists.
Again, any number of shiny abstractions could be brandished about to insist that conservative Christian businesses should not have that right, but here again, we’re not dealing with abstractions. We’re dealing with the need to find reasonable accommodation for differing beliefs in a society that, at least in theory, values liberty.  Claims that this or that person will be harmed by letting a religious minority practice its faith on privately owned business premises, again, have to evince specific, concrete, measurable harm. Being offended doesn’t count here, either, nor does whatever suffering comes your way from being denied the power to make other people do what you think they ought to do.
My readers may have noticed that, given the arrangements just outlined, nobody in the debate over same-sex marriages would get everything they want. That’s at least as offensive as anything else I’ve suggested in this post, but it’s the foundation of Burkean conservatism, and of democratic politics in general. In the messy, gritty world of actual politics, nobody can ever count on getting everything they want—even if they shout at the top of their lungs that they have a right to it—and the best that can be expected is that each side in any controversy will get the things they most need. That’s the kind of resolution that allows a society to function, instead of freezing up into permanent polarization the way America has done in recent years—and it’s the kind of resolution that might just possibly get some semblance of representative democracy intact through the era of crisis looming ahead of us just now.
*******Two other things. First, I’m frankly astounded by the outpouring of congratulations—not to mention tip jar contributions—that came in response to last week’s post on the tenth anniversary of The Archdruid Report. On the off chance that anyone didn’t get thanked sufficiently, please know that the lapse wasn’t intentional! I’m more grateful than I can say for the support and encouragement I’ve received from the community of readers that’s emerged around this blog.
Second, I’m delighted to announce that the first issue of Into the Ruins, as far as I know the first-ever magazine of deindustrial science fiction, is now in print. This is the periodical equivalent of the After Oil anthologies, chockfull of new stories selected by editor Joel Caris; those who like compelling stories about the future we’re actually likely to get won’t want to miss it. Subscribers should be getting their copies shortly if those haven’t arrived already; as for the rest of you—well, what are you waiting for? ;-) You can order copies or buy a subscription at this website.

The Dawn of the Cthulhucene: A Retrospective

Wed, 2016-05-04 17:59
"This year’s Earth Day in Ashland, Oregon, where I live, featured an interfaith service at the local Unitarian church, and I wasn’t too surprised to get a call inviting me to be one of the presenters.”
That was the opening sentence of the first post ever to appear on The Archdruid Report, Real Druids, which went up ten years ago this Friday. When I typed those words, I had no clear idea of what I was going to do with the blog I’d just started. The end of the publishing industry I wrote for in those days was just then waking up to the marketing potential of author blogs; I was also in the third year of my unpaid day job as head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a small and old-fashioned Druid order distinctly out of step with the pop-culture Neopaganism of the time, and hoped to use a blog to bring the order to the attention of anyone out there who might be interested in something so unfashionable.
So I sat down at the computer, logged into my Blogger account, clicked on the button marked new post, and stared blankly at it for a while before I started to type. That, as they say, is how it all began.
In terms of the perspectives with which this blog deals—the grand sweep of human history, and the much vaster sweep of geological and evolutionary deep time—ten years is less than an eyeblink. In terms of a single human life, though, it’s a considerable span. Over that period I’ve moved from Ashland to Cumberland, Maryland, the red-brick mill town in the north central Appalachians where I now live. My writing career has burgeoned since then, too, helped along considerably by the two novels and nine nonfiction books that started out as sequences of blog posts.
My other career, the unpaid one mentioned above, also went through plenty of changes—if any of my readers ever have the opportunity to become the presiding officer of a nearly defunct Druid order and help it get back on its feet, I certainly recommend the experience! Still, twelve years in the hot seat was enough, and at the winter solstice just past I stepped down as Grand Archdruid of AODA with a sigh of relief, and handed the management of the order over to my successor Gordon Cooper.
There have been plenty of other changes over the last ten years, of course, and quite a few of them also affected The Archdruid Report. One that had a particularly significant impact was the rise, fall, and resurgence of the peak oil scene. Most of a decade before that first post, a handful of people—most of them petroleum geologists and the like—noticed that oil was being pumped much more quickly than new oilfields were being discovered. Now of course this turn of events had been predicted in quite a bit of detail well before then; back in the 1970s, in particular, when the phrase “limits to growth” hadn’t yet become taboo in polite company, plenty of people noticed that trying to extract an infinite supply of oil from a finite planet was guaranteed to end badly. 
That awareness didn’t survive the coming of the Reagan counterrevolution. More precisely, it survived only on the far fringes of the collective conversation of our time, where the few of us who refused to drink Ronnie’s koolaid spent most of two decades trying to figure out how to live in a civilization that, for all intents and purposes, seemed to have succumbed to a collective death wish. Still, our time in exile didn’t last forever.  It was 1998, as I recall, when I found the original Running On Empty email list—one of the first online meeting places for people concerned about peak oil—and I stayed with the movement thereafter as it slowly grew, and the rising tide of data made the case for imminent peak oil harder and harder to dismiss out of hand. 
Two books published in the early 2000s—Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over and James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency—helped launch the peak oil movement into public awareness. Not incidentally, those were also the books that convinced me that it might just be possible to talk frankly about the predicament of industrial society: not just peak oil, but the broader collision between the economic ideology of limitless growth and the hard realities of a fragile planet. The Archdruid Report came out of that recognition, though I thought at first that its audience would be limited to the Druid community; I figured that people who had embraced Druid nature spirituality might be more open to the kind of intellectual heresy I had in mind. The blog turned out to have a much broader audience than that, but it took me quite a while to realize that, and longer still to recognize its implications.
Meanwhile the peak oil movement hit its own peak between 2008 and 2010, and began skidding down the far side of its own Hubbert curve. That’s standard for movements for social change, though it was probably worsened by the premature triumphalism that convinced many peakniks that once they’d proved their case, governments had to do something about the impending crisis, and that also led some large peak oil organizations to spend money they didn’t have trying to run with the big dogs. At this point, as the fracking bubble falters and the economy misbehaves in ways that conventional economic theory can’t account for but peak oil theory can, the bottom has likely been reached, and a much shorter period of exile is duly ending.  Talk about peak oil in the media and the political sphere is picking up again, and will accelerate as the consequences of another decade of malign neglect bear down with increasing force on the industrial world.
One of the things I find most interesting about this trajectory is that it didn’t impact The Archdruid Report in the way I would have expected. During the years when the peak oil movement was all over large portions of the internet, my monthly page views and other site stats remained fairly modest. It wasn’t until 2010, when the peak oil scene was beginning to falter, that my stats started to climb steadily; my first breakout all-over-the-internet post came in 2011, and thereafter readership has remained high, wobbling up and down around an average of a quarter million page views a month. All ten of my top ten posts, in terms of total unique page views, appeared between 2011 and this year. On the off chance my readers are interested, here they are:
1. Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, June 30, 20122. Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment, January 20, 20163. How It Could Happen, Part One: Hubris, October 3, 20124. How Not to Play the Game, June 29, 20115. An Elegy for the Age of Space, August 24, 20116. The Next Ten Billion Years, September 4, 20137. Into an Unknown Country, January 2, 20138. Fascism and the Future, Part Three: Weimar America, February 26, 20149. The Recovery of the Human, February 1, 201210. The Death of the Internet: A Pre-Mortem, April 29, 2015
(I discovered in the process of making this list, by the way, that the Blogger gizmo for tracking all time top posts doesn’t actually do what it’s supposed to do. Like so much of the internet, it provides the illusion of exact data but not the reality, and I had to go back over the raw numbers to get an accurate list. My readers may draw their own conclusions about the future of a society that increasingly relies on internet-filtered information as a source of guidance.)
None of these posts are only about peak oil, or even about peak energy.  You’ll find references to the hard physical and geological limits of the energy resources available to our species in most of them, to be sure, and quite a few detailed discussions of those limits and their implications among the other 489 posts that have appeared here in the last decade. That said, those limits aren’t quite central to this blog’s project. They derive, like the other common themes here, from something else.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted that his treatise The World as Will and Representation, massive though it is, was simply the working out of a single idea in all its ramifications. The same is true of this blog, though I’m an essayist and novelist rather than an analytical philosopher, and thus my pursuit of the idea I’m trying to pin down has been somewhat more discursive and rambling than his. (I make no apologies for that fact; I write the way I like to write, for those who like to read it.) Not all ideas can be summed up in a few words or a snappy slogan.  In particular, the more thoroughly an idea challenges our basic preconceptions about the nature of things, and the more stark the gap between its implications and those of the conventional wisdom, the more thoroughly and patiently it must be explored if it’s going to be understood at all.
Even so, there are times when an unexpected turn of phrase can be used, if not to sum up a challenging idea, at least to point in its direction forcefully enough to break through some of the barriers to understanding. Thanks to one of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Mgalimba—I encountered such a turn of phrase last week. That came via a 2014 talk by cutting-edge thinker Donna Haraway, in which she challenged a currently popular label for the geological period we’re entering, the Anthropocene, and proposed her own coinage: the Cthulhucene.
She had specific reasons for the proposal, and I’d encourage my readers to see what she had to say about those, but I have somewhat different reasons for adopting the term. H.P. Lovecraft, who invented the squid-faced, dragon-winged, monster-clawed devil-god Cthulhu for one of his best stories, used that being and the other tentacled horrors of his imaginary pantheon to represent a concept as alien to the conventional thought of industrial society as the Great Old Ones themselves. The term Lovecraft used for that concept was “indifferentism”—the recognition that the universe is utterly indifferent to human beings, not sympathetic, not hostile, not anything, and that it’s really rather silly of us, all things considered, to expect it to conform to our wishes, expectations, or sense of entitlement.
Does this seem embarrassingly obvious? The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that most people nowadays who insist that the universe is indifferent to humanity turn around and make claims about the future that presuppose exactly the opposite. I’ve long since lost track of the number of committed atheists I’ve met, for example, who readily agreed that the universe is indifferent to our desires, but then insisted there has to be some other energy resource out there at least as cheap, concentrated, and abundant as the ones we’re currently using up. That claim only makes sense if you assume that the supplies of matter and energy in the cosmos have somehow been arranged for our benefit; otherwise, no, there doesn’t have to be any other resource out there. We could simply use up what we’ve got, and then have to get by without concentrated energy sources for the rest of the time our species happens to exist.
That’s far from the only example of stealth anthropocentrism I’ve encountered in the same context. I’ve also long since lost track of the number of committed atheists who reject the idea of a caring cosmos out of hand, but then go on to claim that technological progress of the kind we’ve made is irreversible. That claim only makes sense if you assume that history is somehow arranged for our benefit, so that we don’t have to worry about sliding back down the long slope we climbed so laboriously over the last five centuries or so.  If history is indifferent to our preferences, by contrast, the way down is just as easy as the way up, and decline and fall waits for us as it did for all those dead civilizations in the past.
Then there’s the most embarrassing claim of all, the devout insistence that humanity’s destiny lies out there in space. “Destiny” is a theological concept, and it’s frankly risible to find it being tossed around so freely by people who insist they’ve rejected theology, but let’s go a step further here. If the universe is in fact indifferent to our wishes and desires, the mere fact that a certain number of people have gotten worked up over science-fiction visions of zooming off toward the stars does not oblige the universe to make space travel a viable option for our species. There are in fact very good reasons to think that it’s not a viable option, but you won’t get many people to admit that these days. We (or, rather, some of us) dream of going to the stars, therefore it must be possible for us to go to the stars—and before you claim that human beings can achieve anything they can imagine, dear reader, I encourage you to read up on the long history of attempts to build a working perpetual motion machine.
I’ve picked on atheists in these three examples, and to some extent that’s unfair. It’s true that most of the really flagrant examples of stealth anthropocentrism I’ve encountered over the last ten years came from people who made quite a point of their atheism, but of course there’s no shortage of overt toxic anthropocentrism over on the religious side of things—I’m thinking here of those Christian fundamentalists who claim that Christ is coming soon and therefore it doesn’t matter how savagely we lay waste a world they themselves claim that God made and called good. I’ve met atheists, to be fair, who recognize that their belief in the absence of purpose in the cosmos implies that no providence will protect us from the consequences of our own stupidity. I’ve also met religious people who recognize that the universe defined by their beliefs is theocentric, not anthropocentric, and that human beings might therefore want to cultivate the virtue of humility and attend to the purposes that God or the gods might have in mind, rather than assuming in blithe arrogance that whatever humanity thinks it wants, it ought to get.
The dawn of the Cthulhucene represents the arrival of a geological period in which those latter ways of understanding the world will be impossible to ignore any longer. We are beginning to learn no matter how hard we scrunch our eyes shut and plug our ears and shout “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” to the rest of the universe, the universe is not going to give us what we want just because we want it:  that the resources we waste so cluelessly will not be replaced for our benefit, and we will have to face every one of the consequences of the damage we do to the planetary biosphere that keeps us alive. In place of the megalomaniacal fantasy of Man the Conqueror of Nature, striding boldly from star to star in search of new worlds to plunder, we are beginning to see a vast and alien shape rising before us out of the mists of the future, a shape we might as well call Cthulhu: winged, scaled, tentacled, clawed, like a summary of life on earth, regarding us with utterly indifferent eyes.
In those eyes, we balding social primates are of no more importance in the great scheme of things than the trilobites or the dinosaurs, or for that matter the countless species—intelligent or otherwise—that will come into being long after the last human being has gone to join the trilobites and dinosaurs in Earth’s library of fossil beds.  The sooner we grasp that, the easier it will be for us to drop the misguided anthropocentric delusions that blind us to our situation, wake up to the mess we’ve made of things, and get to work trying to save as many of the best achievements of the last three hundred years or so before the long night of the deindustrial dark ages closes in around us.
Given that the universe is simply not interested in pandering to the fantasies of omnipotence currently fashionable among influential members of our species—given that no special providence is going to rescue us from the consequences of our assorted stupidities, no resource fairy is going to give us a shiny new energy source to make up for the resources we now squander so recklessly, and the laws of nature are already sending the results of our frankly brainless maltreatment of the biosphere back in our faces with an utter lack of concern for our feelings and interests—how should we then live? That’s the theme that I’ve been trying to explore, in one way or another, since this blog got under way. It’s a vast theme, and one that I haven’t even begun to exhaust yet. I have no idea if I’m still going to be blogging here ten years from now, but if not, it won’t be due to lack of things to talk about.
One more thing deserves to be said here, though. All along the journey that brought me from that first tentative post to this week’s retrospective, one of the things that’s made the way easier and a good deal more enjoyable has been the enthusiasm, understanding, and critical insight that’s been shown by so many of my readers. Time after time, faced with the choice of backing away from a controversial subject or plunging ahead, I’ve taken the plunge, and discovered that my readers were more than ready to jump with me. Time after time, too, when I’ve offered a rough sketch of some part of the landscape I’m trying to explore, my readers have asked questions and posed challenges that helped me immeasurably in clarifying my thinking and discarding approximations that didn’t work. As this blog begins its eleventh year, I’d like to thank everyone who’s made a comment here—and also everyone who’s made a donation to the tip jar and thus helped me afford the hours each week that go into these blog posts. My gratitude goes with each of you; I hope you’ve found the journey so far as rewarding as I have.

Where On The Titanic Would You Like Your Deck Chair, Ma’am?

Wed, 2016-04-27 19:30
Last week I had the enticing experience of being denounced as a racist on one blog and castigated as a social justice warrior on another. As my regular readers know, such entertainments have been anything but rare since I launched The Archdruid Report just under ten years ago. The odd belief that there are only two possible ways to think about any issue pervades modern American society; contradict that habit of thought, break with the conventional wisdom, and propose a third alternative, and you can count on both sides insisting that you belong to whichever point of view they like least.
If this week’s post fields a similar response, I won’t be surprised. Over the last month, we’ve been talking about the convoluted landscape of privilege in American society, and the way that the preferred rhetoric of both ends of the acceptable political spectrum falsifies the actual complexities of privilege that exist in contemporary American life. Some of my readers have wondered aloud, though, what that theme has to do with the broader issues at the heart of this blog’s project—the increasingly bleak future that modern industrial society is building for itself, the particular shape that future is taking in the United States, and the possibilities for constructive action that are still available this late in the day.
In this week’s post, I propose to start tying those threads back together.
One of the things that’s determined by privilege, after all, is which members of a society have a voice in making that society’s collective decisions. When George W. Bush sent American troops surging over the Iraqi border in 2003 and plunged the Middle East into its current state of chaos, for example, that decision was not made by all Americans equally. A small group of ideologues in the inner circles of the Bush administration made that decision, and got it rubberstamped by the President.  A larger circle of politicians, representing an assortment of power centers toward the upper end of the nation’s political and economic hierarchy, either supported the move or chose not to oppose it.
The few million Americans whose wealth and influence give them the ability to make themselves heard by the political system, in turn, either went along with the plan, or contented themselves with the kind of pro forma protests that the establishment has learned it can safely ignore. The rest of the American people, to say nothing of the people in Iraq and elsewhere who ended up bearing the brunt of the Bush regime’s squeaky-voiced machismo, had nothing to say in the matter.
This is normal. Every human society without exception gives some members more say in making decisions than others.  Since human beings are what they are, in turn, every human society without exception hands out those decision-making roles in ways that can reasonably be called unfair. That’s true of all other species of social primates, too, so odds are it’s as thoroughly hardwired into our behavioral repertoire as, say, sex.
I mentioned a little earlier the common American habit of insisting that there are two and only two ways to think about any issue. This is another example. The conventional wisdom on the Left holds that it’s not only possible but mandatory to create a society with no inequality at all, where everyone has the same privileges as affluent American liberals have today. The conventional wisdom on the right holds that existing inequalities are good and right and proper, and reflect the actual worth of the more or less privileged. Both of them are wrong, but they’re wrong in different ways.
The Left’s faith in the possibility of a society of perfect equality, where no one is more or less privileged than anybody else, has deep roots. Christian heretics in the Middle Ages roughed out the idea of a society in which perfect love would erase social divisions and everyone would share freely in all of life’s blessings; most had the great good sense to place this utopian vision on the far side of the Second Coming, when divine omnipotence could be counted on to take care of the practical difficulties of such a system. With the waning of Christian faith, Enlightenment philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau transposed the old vision into a new key, but lacked the perspicacity to find some existential barrier to shield the dream of a world of perfect equality from the fraught realities of human nature.
The result has been a long string of societies that proclaimed that they had abolished all privilege and made everyone equal. In every case, without exception, what happened instead was that an overt system of privilege was destroyed, and promptly replaced with a covert system of privilege—and since this latter was covert, it was much less subject to checks and balances. That’s why, from the Terror of revolutionary France to the killing fields of Cambodia, utopias of perfect equality quite reliably end up awash in rivers of blood. The American left, though, remains immune to the lessons of history, and once you get beyond the affluent end of the left, you can readily find utopian fantasies of the same kind that drove Robespierre, Stalin, and Pol Pot to their destinies being loudly proclaimed as the next great step in human history.
On the affluent end of the American left, by contrast, the blindness to history takes on a different shape. From the standpoint of the privileged liberal, the only reason everyone in today’s America isn’t equal is the machinations of the Evil Ists—that is, racists, sexists, fascists, and the like, who hold down all of American society’s underprivileged groups out of sheer evil evilness.  Theirs is the logic of the Rescue Game discussed in an earlier post this month; the idea that privilege is structural and systemic, and that they’ve benefited from it all their lives without having to take an active role in the process is right outside their grasp of the world. Suggest it, and they’ll assume that you must mean that they’re Evil Ists and leap up in outrage shouting, "No, no, we’re the good guys!"
Of course there’s another massive problem with the particular form that the dream of a perfectly equal society has taken on the contemporary American left. Most versions of that dream imagine dragging the privileged down to the level of the poor; the current American version, as already noted, dreams of bringing everyone else up to the level of the affluent. It’s a more generous vision but also a far more clueless one, because the privileges, perquisites, and comforts that make the life of an affluent American what it is today are made possible, first, by the breakneck consumption of irreplaceable natural resources at wildly unsustainable rates, and second, by a distorted global economic system that until very recently allowed the five per cent or so of humanity that lives in the United States to consume around a third of the products of the global economy.
I’ve already discussed at length, here and in several of my books as well, the impossibility of keeping America’s affluent in the style to which they have become accustomed. (The short form was summed up memorably by Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”)  Factor in the cost of giving everyone else those  lifestyles and the impossibility factor soars to Himalayan heights. Understandably, a great many affluent American liberals don’t want to hear this, but facts of this kind are like cats—the more strictly you ignore them, the more they persist in wreathing around your ankles and jumping up into your lap.
The Right’s faith in the fairness of existing inequalities has more flexible roots, as shifts in intellectual fashion have sent the rhetoric of privilege careening all over a broad landscape of ideas. Back in the Middle Ages, the usual argument was that God had assigned each person his or her station in life, and asking questions about privilege was tantamount to questioning God’s good intentions. The collapse of Christian faith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sent the apologists of privilege scrambling for other options; theories of racial superiority and Social Darwinism put fake biology in place of religion. More recently, the insistence that modern industrial societies are meritocracies, where each person naturally gravitates to a place consistent with his or her abilities, fill the same dubious role.
That said, the American right remains just as closed to the lessons of history as their equal and opposite counterparts on the left. Track the individuals and families that populate the upper reaches of privilege in any modern industrial society, and you’ll see something that resembles nothing so much as a pot of spaghetti sauce at a slow rolling boil. Individuals and families rise up from lower in the pot, linger on the upper surface for a while, and sink back into the depths. No one formula explains the churning; for every person who climbs into the upper ranks of privilege on the basis of talent, there’s at least one who bullied and bluffed his way there and another who got there by sheer dumb luck—and there are many others just as talented who never succeeded in climbing the social ladder as far, or at all.
The way down is a little more predictable than the way up, not least because it used to be a favorite theme for novelists. I’m thinking here among many others of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which follows a wealthy German family from the zenith of privilege through decline and extinction over the course of the nineteenth century. The lesson to be learned here is that a life of privilege doesn’t foster the habits that conduce to the preservation of privilege. Within a few generations, the descendants of the talented, the blustering, and the just plain lucky who clawed their way to the top become clueless and cosseted, unable to deal with the ordinary hurly-burly of life outside their bubble of privilege, and when something disrupts that bubble, down they go.
In ordinary times, as the spaghetti-sauce metaphor suggests, the turnover in the privileged classes is relatively steady and goes on without causing any particular disruption to the pot as a whole. To extend the metaphor, though, there are times when history turns up the heat suddenly under the sauce, a great bubble of steam rises to the surface, and the entire upper surface of the sauce is replaced in a single convulsive blorp. When that happens with spaghetti sauce, the result is usually quite a mess, and the same is just as true of the social phenomenon.
Here a different novel by Thomas Mann is a useful guide—the most famous of his works, The Magic Mountain. What it’s about, if I may sum up an extraordinarily multilayered tale far too crudely, is the world of European privilege in the years just before the First World War. There were plenty of novels written about that theme in the 1920s, when the memory of that vanished era was still fresh enough to be painful, but Mann went about telling his story in a typically unorthodox way. The slice of prewar life he chose, half metaphor and half microcosm, was a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Swiss Alps.
Back before the development of effective treatments, tuberculosis was a death sentence for the poor. Those who didn’t have to work for a living, though, could seek a cure in sanitariums in mountainous regions, where the clear dry air might give their immune systems enough of an edge to overcome the infection. There, with nothing to distract them but conversation and romance, the patients go round the narrow circles of their well-ordered lives, their every need taken care of by swarms of servants. Far below the magic mountain, on the crowded plains of Europe, things were happening and pressures were building toward an explosion, but the feckless viewpoint character Hans Castorp and his fellow-patients—Lodovico Settembrini, Clavdia Chauchat, and the rest—drift aimlessly along until the explosion arrives, the trance shatters, and Castorp is flung, or flings himself, down from the magic mountain and onto the killing fields of the First World War.
It’s a heck of a read and I recommend it to anyone who has the patience—not that common these days—to take in a long, thoughtful, and richly ironic novel. That said, Mann’s take also places the current state of affairs in the United States and the rest of the industrial world in mordant focus. History paid Mann an elegant compliment, because the Swiss town where the International Sanitarium Berghof was located in Mann’s novel is famous today for a slightly different gathering of the coddled and cosseted rich. Yes, that would be Davos, where the self-proclaimed masters of the world gather every year to take in speeches by movers, shakers, and tame intellectuals, and issue oh-so-serious  rehashes of whatever vacuous brand of conventional wisdom is in fashion just then. Look at pictures of the the last few Davos gatherings, and I’m quite sure that you’ll be able to spot Hans Castorp among the crowd, blinking owlishly at the camera. 
Castorp’s vague cluelessness, certainly, is much on display these days, and not merely at Davos. I’ve discussed a great many aspects of that cluelessness in previous posts, but the one that’s relevant here is the way that people high up on America’s social ladder understand their own privilege. By and large, as already noted, the affluent on the leftward end don’t think they have any privilege at all, while their counterparts on the rightward end think that their privilege is a straightforward reflection of their own superior talent, intelligence, and so on.
Here again, the reality is a bit different. The affluent classes in America, as already noted, have the privileges, the benefits, and the comforts they have for two reasons.  The first is that the world’s industrial societies are consuming irreplaceable natural resources at unsustainable rates in order to keep the global economy churning out the goods and services needed to prop up the lifestyles of the affluent. The second is that wildly unbalanced patterns of exchange concentrate the lion’s share of the benefits of that orgy of environmental destruction in the hands of a small percentage of our species. If you want to talk about the 1%, I’m fine with that, so long as it’s applied globally: to the top 1% by income of Homo sapiens. If you live in America and have an annual household income above $38,000 or so, in case you were wondering, you belong to that category.
This is the magic mountain of our era—a mountain of privilege whose inmates either have no idea that they’re privileged, or have convinced themselves that they deserve whatever they have and that those who don’t have the same things don’t deserve them. Far below the magic mountain, in the rest of the world, things are happening and pressures are building toward an explosion, but most of those up there in the heights haven’t noticed. It does not occur to them that there’s anything unusual about their lives, much less that some sudden turn of events could fling them down from the mountain and into a chaotic future for which most of them have made no preparations at all.
What they don’t see, in brief, is that both of the pillars propping up their lives—the breakneck exploitation of finite natural resources and the arrangements that funnel an oversized share of the proceeds to a small minority—are running up against hard limits right now. In upcoming posts I’ll be going into much more detail about how that’s playing out. For the time being, I want to talk about what this means for the structures of privilege we’ve been discussing for the last month.
Let’s take the two pillars one at a time.  A nation that supports itself by exploiting the rest of the world has a very different economic structure from a nation that supports itself by its own efforts. In the latter, the economy tends to be dominated by productive labor, on the one hand, and investment on the other, and the sort of conflict that Karl Marx liked to talk about—in terms of the analysis I’ve been using in these essays, the conflict between the wage class and the investment class—determines the distribution of wealth and privilege in society. In the former, by contrast, it makes more economic sense to offshore the production of goods and services to other countries, and to use the profits of global exploitation rather than domestic savings to provide capital for industry; thus the wage class and the investment class both suffer, while the salary class—the class of managers, marketers, bankers, bureaucrats, and corporate flunkies, all those professions that make their livings by manipulating the wealth produced by others—prospers as never before.
The transition from an economy focused on domestic production to an economy focused on global exploitation takes plenty of time.  In the case of the United States, it took a hundred years, from the first wave of American imperial expansion in 1898 to the temporary triumph of globalization in the 1980s.  The transition the other way, though, happens a good deal more quickly, as a faltering hegemon generally gets shoved aside by rising powers rather than being allowed to decay slowly in peace. The aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse is a good working model here: once the Soviet system imploded, Russia suddenly had to do without the large subsidies it received from the rest of the Eastern bloc, and most of a decade of raw economic chaos followed as the Russian economy struggled to adapt to the task of meeting its own needs domestically. Soviet Russia, it bears noting, was much less dependent on overseas imports for goods and services than today’s America, so the post-Soviet experience should be considered a lower bound for what we’re in for.
The other pillar has similar implications. An economy based on the breakneck consumption of natural resources tends to concentrate influence in the hands of those who control resource flows directly or indirectly, and in today’s America, once again, these tend to be disproportionately members of the salary class. An economy based on the conservation of natural resources tends to concentrate influence instead in the hands of those who own sustainable resources such as land, or those who work directly with those resources; again, the conflict between owners and laborers determines the distribution of wealth and privilege in such societies. Transitioning from a conserver economy to a consumer economy takes plenty of time—in the case of the United States, the better part of two hundred years—while the transition the other way tends, once more, to be much more rapid once the resources run short.
It’s in this context, finally, that we can understand the unexpected revolt of the wage class that’s having so dramatic a role in shaping this years US presidential race. Hillary Clinton, like her already-forgotten Republican equivalents, is a perfect salary class candidate; she speaks for the privileged, and her entire campaign consists of waving around sound bites that signal to the privileged that they don’t need to worry about significant change if she moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders, are appealing instead to the wage class. I doubt either one expected to get anything like as far as he has, but both seem perfectly willing to ride the wave of popular discontent just as far as it will take them—and in Trump’s case, it seems likely to take him straight to the White House this autumn.
That is to say, what was supposed to be an ordinary contest among the champions of the affluent has suddenly taken on a very different shape. To shift metaphors a bit, the affluent are beginning to notice that their jockeying for position resembles nothing so much as bickering over the arrangement of deck chairs aboard the Titanic. The revolt of the wage class shows that the structure of power and privilege in today’s America is already beginning to shift, and two weeks from now we’ll take a hard look at some of the ways that shift is unfolding and some of the factors that are driving it.
First, though, comes something a little different. Next week marks the tenth anniversary of The Archdruid Report, and I plan on a bit of retrospective—and a bit of celebration. After that’s done, we can roll up our sleeves and get in under the hood of a society and a civilization in terminal disarray.

Starhawking the Privilege Game

Wed, 2016-04-20 16:00
The last two posts here on The Archdruid Report, with their focus on America’s class system and the dysfunctional narratives that support it, fielded an intriguing response from readers. I expected a fair number to be uncomfortable with the subject I was discussing; I didn’t expect them to post comments and emails asking me, in so many words, to please talk about something else instead.
Straight talk about uncomfortable subjects has been this blog’s bread and butter since I first started posting just shy of ten years ago, so I’ve had some experience with the way that blog readers squirm. Normally, when I touch on a hot-button issue, readers who find that subject too uncomfortable go out of their way to act as though I haven’t mentioned it at all. I’m thinking here especially, but not only, of the times I’ve noted that the future of the internet depends on whether it can pay for itself, not on whether it’s technically feasible.  Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve gotten comments that rabbited on endlessly about technical feasibility as a way to avoid talking about the economic reasons why the internet won’t be able to cover its own operating costs in the future of resource depletion and environmental blowback we’re busy making for ourselves.
It’s not just hard questions about the future of the internet that attracts that strategy of avoidance, mind you. I’ve learned to expect it whenever some post of mine touches on any topic that contradicts the conventional wisdom of our time. That’s why the different response I got to the last two posts was so fascinating. The fact that people who were made uncomfortable by a frank discussion of class privilege actually admitted that, rather than trying to pretend that no subject so shocking had been mentioned at all, says to me that we may be approaching a historical inflection point of some importance.
Mind you, frank discussion of class privilege still gets plenty of avoidance maneuvers outside the fringe territory where archdruids lurk. I’m thinking here, of course, of the way that affluent liberals right now are responding to Donald Trump’s straightforward talk about class issues by yelling that he and his followers must be motivated by racism and nothing else. That’s partly a standard bit of liberal rhetoric—I’ve discussed the way that the word “racist,” when uttered by the privileged, normally functions as a dog whistle for “wage class”—but it’s also an attempt to drag the conversation away from what policies that benefit the affluent have done to everyone else in this country.
In some parts of the current Neopagan community, that evasive maneuver has acquired a helpful moniker: “Starhawking.”  With apologies to those of my readers who may find the behavior of one of America’s smaller minority religious communities uninteresting, I’d like to recount the story behind the label.  Here as so often, a small example helps clarify things; the reduced scale of a social microcosm makes it easier to observe patterns that can be harder to see at a glance on the macrocosmic scale.
Those who haven’t had any contact with the Neopagan scene may not know that it isn’t one religion, or even a group of closely related religions; rather, it’s a grab-bag of profoundly diverse faiths, some of which have less in common with one another than Christianity has with Shinto.  Their association in a common subculture comes not from shared beliefs or practices, but solely from a shared history of exclusion from the religious and cultural mainstream of American society.  These days, something like half of American Neopagans participate in some flavor of eclectic Paganism, which emerged out of the older British traditional witchcraft in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the rest fall into two broad categories: one consists of older initiatiory traditions such as the British traditional witchcraft just named, while the other consists of recently revived polytheist faiths worshipping the gods and goddesses of various historic pantheons—Norse, Greek, Egyptian, and so on.
There’s a great deal of talk about inclusiveness in the Neopagan scene, but those of my readers who know their way around small American subcultures will have no trouble figuring out that what this means is that eclectic Paganism is the default option almost everywhere, and people from other traditions are welcome to show up and participate, on terms defined by eclectic Paganism, so long as they don’t offend the sensibilities of the eclectic Pagan majority. For a variety of reasons, most of which are more relevant to my other blog than this one, those sensibilities seem to be getting more easily offended of late, and people from the minority traditions have responded in a variety of ways.  Some have simply walked away from the Neopagan scene, while others have tried, in an assortment of forums, to start a conversation about what has been awkwardly termed “Wiccanate privilege.”
One such discussion was under way at a large San Francisco-area Neopagan event in 2014 when Starhawk put in a belated appearance. For those who aren’t familiar with her, she’s one of the few genuine celebrities to come out of the US Neopagan scene, the author of The Spiral Dance, one of the two books that basically launched eclectic Paganism—the other is Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon—and a notable political figure over on the leftward end of the spectrum. According to people I know who were there, she proceeded to insist that the conversation should not even be happening, because all Pagans need to unite to save the Earth.
Mind you, there were plenty of other conversations going on at that event that had nothing to do with saving the Earth, and neither she nor anyone else seemed to feel any need to try to silence those conversations—just the conversation about privilege.  That’s Starhawking: the rhetorical tactic of insisting that some other issue is so important that the privilege of the speaker must not be discussed. To be fair to Starhawk, she didn’t invent it; it’s all over contemporary discourse in America, quite often in contexts where the stakes are considerably higher than they will ever be in the Neopagan scene. 
Madeleine Albright’s recent insistence that every woman in America should vote for Hillary Clinton or fry in hell comes out of exactly the same logic. Issue A in this case is the so-called “glass ceiling,” the habit of excluding women of the privileged classes from the upper reaches of power and wealth. Issue B in this case is the fact that putting Hillary Clinton into the White House will only benefit those women who belong to the top end of America’s class structure, since the policies Clinton has supported throughout her political life have brought impoverishment and immiseration to the vast majority of American women, i.e., those who belong to the wage class and the lower half or so of the salary class.
When Starhawking comes from the leftward end of the affluent class, it’s almost always framed in terms of another kind of bias—racism, sexism, or what have you—which can be used, along the lines detailed last week, to blame the sufferings of one underprivileged group on another underprivileged group. When it takes place on the other end of the political spectrum, as of course it does all the time, other issues are used to drown out any discussion of privilege; among the favorites are crime, Christian moral theology, and the alleged laziness and greed of people on public assistance. The excuse differs but the rhetorical gimmick is the same.
One of the things that makes that gimmick viable is the ambiguous nature of the language that’s used to talk about the various candidates for Issue A. “Crime,” for example, is a nice vague abstraction that everyone can agree to oppose. Once that agreement has been obtained, on the other hand, it descends from the airy realm of abstraction into some very questionable specifics—to note a relevant example, none of the politicians who boast about being “tough on crime” have shown any interest in locking up the kleptomaniacs of Wall Street, whose billion-dollar swindles have done far more damage to the nation than any number of muggings on the mean streets of our inner cities.
In the same way, words like “racism” and “sexism” are abstractions with a great deal of ambiguity built into them. There are at least three things conflated in labels of this kind. I’d like to unpack those for a moment, in the hope of getting a clearer view of the convoluted landscape of American inequality.
The things I want to pull out of these portmanteau words, and others like them, are privilege, prejudice, and acts of injustice. Let’s start with the last. Police officers in America, for example, routinely gun down black teenagers in response to actions that do not get white teenagers shot; a woman who gets hired for a job in the US today can expect to get, on average, roughly three-quarters the pay that a man can expect to get for doing exactly the same job; two people who love each other and want to get married have to run a gauntlet of difficulties if they happen to be the same gender that they would not face if they were different genders. Those are acts of injustice.
Prejudice is a matter of attitudes rather than actions. The word literally means pre-judgments, the judgments we all make about people and situations before we encounter them. Everybody has them, every culture teaches them, but some people are more prejudiced—more committed to their pre-judgments, and less willing to reassess them in the face of disconfirming evidence—and some are less so.  Acts of injustice are usually motivated by prejudice, and prejudice very often results in acts of injustice, but neither of these equations are exact. I’ve known people who were profoundly prejudiced but refused to act on their prejudices because some other belief or commitment forbade that; I’ve also known people who participated repeatedly in acts of injustice, who were just following orders or going along with friends, and didn’t care in the least one way or the other.
Then there’s privilege. Where prejudice and acts of injustice are individual, privilege is collective; you have privilege, or don’t have it, because of the categories you belong to, not because of what you do or don’t do. I’ll use myself as a source of examples here. I can walk through the well-to-do neighborhoods of the town where I live, for instance, without being hassled by the police; black people don’t have that privilege. I can publish controversial essays like this one without being bombarded with rape and death threats by trolls; women don’t have that privilege. I can kiss my spouse in public without having some moron yell insults at me out of the window of a passing car; gay people don’t have that privilege.
I could fill the next ten posts on this blog with a listing of similar privileges I have, and not even come close to running out of examples. It’s important, though, to recognize that my condition of privilege isn’t assigned to me for any one reason. It’s not just that I’m white, or male, or heterosexual, or grew up in a family on the lower end of the salary class, or was born able-bodied, or what have you; it’s all of these things and a great many more, taken together, that assign me my place in the hierarchy of privilege. This is equally true of you, dear reader, and of everyone else. What differentiates my position from yours, and yours from everyone else’s, is that every station on the ladder has a different proportion between the number of people above it and the number of people below.  There are, for example, plenty of people in today’s America who have more privilege than I do, but there are vastly more people who have much, much less.
Note also that I don’t have to do anything to get the privileges I have, nor can I get rid of them.  As a white heterosexual man from a salary class background, and the rest of it, I got assigned nearly all of my privileges the moment I was born, and no matter what I do or don’t do, I’ll keep the vast majority of them until I die. Ths is also true of you, dear reader, and of everyone else: the vast majority of what places you on whatever rung you occupy in the long ladder of privilege is yours simply for being born. Thus you’re not responsible for the fact that you have whatever level of privilege you do—though you are responsible, of course, for what you choose to do with it.
You can, after all, convince yourself that you deserve your privilege, and the people who don’t share your privilege deserve their inferior status—that is to say, you can choose to be prejudiced.  You can exploit your privilege to benefit yourself at the expense of the less privileged—that is to say, you can engage in acts of injustice. The more privilege you have, the more your prejudices affect other people’s lives and the more powerful your acts of injustice become. Thus advocates for the less privileged are quite correct to point out that the prejudices and injustices of the privileged matter more than those of the unprivileged.
On the other hand, privilege does not automatically equate to prejudice, or to acts of injustice. It’s entirely possible for the privileged—who, as already noted, did not choose their privilege and can’t get rid of it—to refuse to exploit their privilege in this way. It’s even possible, crashingly unfashionable as the concept is these days, for them to take up the old principle of noblesse oblige: the concept, widely accepted (though not always acted on) in eras where privilege was more openly recognized, that those who are born to privilege also inherit definite responsibilities toward the less privileged. I suppose it’s even possible that they might do this and not expect lavish praise for it, though that’s kind of a stretch, American culture today being what it is.
These days, though, most white heterosexual men from salary class backgrounds don’t think of themselves as privileged, and don’t see the things I enumerated earlier as privileges. This is one of the most crucial points about privilege in today’s America: to the privileged, privilege is invisible. That’s not just a matter of personal cluelessness, or of personal isolation from the less privileged, though these can of course be involved. It’s a matter of enculturation. The mass media and every other aspect of mainstream American culture constantly present the experience of privileged people as normal, and just as constantly feed any departure from that experience through an utterly predictable set of filters.
First, of course, the experience of the unprivileged is erased—“That sort of thing doesn’t actually happen.” When that fails, it’s dismissed as unimportant—”Well, maybe it does happen, but it’s no big deal.” When it becomes clear that it is a big deal to those who have to cope with it, it’s treated as an occasional anomaly—“You can’t generalize from one or two bad examples.” When that breaks down, finally, the experience of the unprivileged is blamed on the unprivileged—“It’s their own fault that they get treated like that.”  If you know your way around America’s collective nonconversation about privilege, in the mass media or in everyday conversation, you’ve seen each one of these filters deployed a thousand times or more.
What makes this interesting is that the invisibility of privilege in modern America isn’t shared by that many other human societies. There are plenty of cultures, past and present, in which privilege is right out there in the open, written into laws, and openly discussed by the privileged as well as the unprivileged. The United States used to be like that as recently as the 1950s. It wasn’t just that there were Jim Crow laws in those days formally assigning black Americans the status of second-class citizens, and laws in many states that gave women second-class status when it came to a galaxy of legal and financial rights; it was all over the media and popular culture, too. Open any daily newspaper, and the society pages splashed around the difference in privilege between those people who belonged to the elite and those who didn’t.
For a complex series of reasons rooted in the cultural convulsions of the Sixties, though, frank talk about privilege stopped being socially acceptable in America over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. That didn’t make privilege go away, of course. It did mean that certain formal expressions of privilege, such as the Jim Crow laws just mentioned, had to be scrapped, and in that process, some real injustices did get fixed. The downside was the rise of a culture of doubletalk in which the very real disparities in privilege in American society got fed repeatedly through the filters described above, and one of the most important sources of those disparities—class differences—were shoved completely out of the collective conversation of our time.
The habit of Starhawking is one of the major rhetorical tools by which open discussion of privilege, and above all of class privilege, got thrust out of sight. It’s been used with equal verve at all points along the political spectrum from the far left straight across to the far right. Whether it’s affluent liberals insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege in order to get on with the task of saving the Earth, affluent conservatives insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege in order to get on with the task of returning America to its Christian roots, or—and this is increasingly the standard line—affluent people on both sides insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege because fighting those horrible people on the other side of the political spectrum is the only thing that matters, what all these utterances mean in practice is “don’t talk about my privilege.”
That sort of evasion is what I expected to field from readers when I started talking about issues surrounding class privilege earlier this year. I got a certain amount of it, to be sure, but as already mentioned, I also got comments by people who acknowledged that they were uncomfortable with the discussion and wanted me to stop. What this says to me is that the wall of denial and doubletalk that has closed down open discussion of privilege in today’s America—and especially of class privilege—may be cracking at last. Granted, The Archdruid Report is well out there on the cultural fringes of American society, but it’s very often the fringes that show signs of major social changes well before the mainstream ever hears about them.
If it’s true that the suppression of talk about privilege in general, and class privilege in particular, is in the process of breaking down, it’s not a minute too soon. The United States just now stands in the path of a tidal wave of drastic change, and current patterns of privilege are among the many things that bid fair to be upended once it hits. We’ll talk about that next week.

American Narratives: The Rescue Game

Wed, 2016-04-13 15:38
Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, with its analysis of the way that affluent white liberals use accusations of racism as a dog whistle for their own bigotry toward wage-earning Americans, got a flurry of emails and attempted comments trying to push the discussion back into the officially approved narrative of race in the United States. That came as no surprise, at least to me. Every society has a set of acceptable narratives that frame public discourse on any controversial subject, and trying to get past the narrow confines of any such narrative inevitably brings some form of pushback.
Depending on the society and the era, the pushback can quite readily include such entertainments as being burnt at the stake for heresy, so I don’t feel any need to complain about the really rather mild response I got. At the same time, though, I don’t propose to back down. Every society, as just noted, has a set of narratives that confine discourse on controversial subjects to approved channels, but tolerably often those approved channels exclude crucial details and head off necessary questions. In today’s United States, in particular, the facts concerning nearly every significant crisis we face can be divided up neatly into two entirely separate categories. The facts that most Americans are willing to talk about belong to one of these categories; the facts that matter most belong to the other.
Thus one of the things I plan on doing over the months ahead is talking about some of the narratives that keep most people in today’s America from discussing, or for that matter noticing, the most crucial forces dragging this country down to ruin. Such an examination could as well start with any of those narratives—as Charles Fort pointed out, one traces a circle starting anywhere—but given the response to last week’s post, we might as well start with the accepted narrative about race.
It’s probably necessary to reiterate that this discussion is about narratives, not about the things that the narratives are supposed to describe. If you want to hear about the realities of racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice in the United States, you need to talk to the people of color who have to deal with those things day in and day out, not to a middle-aged white intellectual like me, who’s by and large been sheltered from that dimension of the American experience. People of color, on the other hand, have had very little influence on the officially approved narrative of race in the United States.  Like most of the narratives that shape our collective discourse, that’s been crafted primarily by middle-aged white intellectuals with college educations and salary-class backgrounds: that is, people like me. If I sing you some of the songs of my people, in other words, I hope you won’t mind.
I’m going to approach the opening notes of this first song by what may seem like a roundabout route. There’s a school of psychology called transactional analysis, which focuses on interactions between people rather than the vagaries of the individual psyche. Transactional analysis covers a lot of ground, but I want to focus on just one of its themes here: the theory of interpersonal games.
An interpersonal game, like most other games, has a set of rules and some kind of prizes for winners. In a healthy interpersonal game, the rules and the prizes are overt: that is, if you ask the players what they are, you can pretty much count on an honest answer. As this stops being true—as more of the rules and prizes become covert—the game becomes more and more dysfunctional. At the far end of the spectrum are those wholly dysfunctional games in which straight talk about the rules and payoffs is utterly taboo.
The accepted mainstream narrative about race in America today can best be described as one of those latter category of wholly dysfunctional games. Fortunately, it’s a game that was explored in quite a bit of detail by transactional analysts in the 1960s and 1970s, so it won’t be particularly difficult to break the taboo and speak about the unspeakable. Its name?  The Rescue Game.
Here’s how it works. Each group of players is assigned one of three roles: Victim, Persecutor, or Rescuer. The first two roles are allowed one move each: the Victim’s move is to suffer, and the Persecutor’s move is to make the Victim suffer. The Rescuer is allowed two moves: to sympathize with the Victim and to punish the Persecutor. No other moves are allowed, and no player is allowed to make a move that belongs to a different role.
That may seem unduly limited. It’s not, because when a group of people is assigned a role, all their actions are redefined as the move or moves allotted to that role.  In the Rescue Game, in other words, whatever a Victim does must be interpreted as a cry of pain. Whatever a Persecutor does is treated as something that’s intended to cause pain to a Victim, and whatever a Rescuer does, by definition, either expresses sympathy for a Victim or inflicts well-deserved punishment on a Persecutor. This is true even when the actions performed by the three people in question happen to be identical. In a well-played Rescue Game, quite a bit of ingenuity can go into assigning every action its proper meaning as a move.
What’s more, the roles are collective, not individual. Each Victim is equal to every other Victim, and is expected to feel and resent all the suffering ever inflicted on every other Victim in the same game. Each Persecutor is equal to every other Persecutor, and so is personally to blame for every suffering inflicted by every other Persecutor in the same game. Each Rescuer, in turn, is equal to every other Rescuer, and so may take personal credit for the actions of every other Rescuer in the same game. This allows the range of potential moves to expand to infinity without ever leaving the narrow confines of the game.
There’s one other rule: the game must go on forever. The Victim must continue to suffer, the Persecutor must continue to persecute, and the Rescuer must continue to sympathize and punish. Anything that might end the game—for example, any actual change in the condition of the Victim, or any actual change in the behavior of the Persecutor—is therefore out of bounds. The Rescuer also functions as a referee, and so it’s primarily his or her job to see that nothing gets in the way of the continuation of the game, but all players are expected to help out if that should be necessary.
Got it? Now we’ll go to an example—and no, it’s not the one you’re thinking of. The example I have in mind is the standard narrative of race in the deep South for the century or so after the Civil War.
The players were rich white people, poor white people, and black people—this latter category, in the jargon of the time, included anyone with any publicly admitted trace of African ancestry.  The roles were assigned as follows: poor white people were Victims, black people were Persecutors, and rich white people were Rescuers. The rest of the game followed from there.
Anything that poor white people did to black people was thus justified, under the rules of the game, as a cry of pain elicited by their suffering at the hands of Yankees, carpetbaggers, former slaves, etc., etc. etc.  Anything rich white people did to black people was justified by their assigned role as Rescuers. Meanwhile, anything and everything that was done, or not done, by black people was defined as a persecution—if black people pursued an education, for example, they were trying to steal jobs from white folk, while if they didn’t, that just proved that they were an inferior element corrupting the South by their very presence, and so on through all the classic doublebinds of bigotry.
A variant of that game still goes on in the pseudoconservative end of American politics. When Hillary Clinton went out of her way to characterize African-American youth as “superpredators” not that many years ago, she was playing a version of that same game, in which law-abiding white citizens were the Victims, black youth were the Persecutors, and white politicians were the Rescuers. On the other end of the political spectrum, of course, the roles are reversed; in games played on that field, people of color are the Victims, working class white people are the Persecutors, and affluent white liberals are the Rescuers. The players have changed places but the game’s otherwise identical.
Yes, I’m aware that people of color on the one hand, and working class white people on the other, occupy radically different places in the hierarchy of privilege in today’s America. More precisely, members of each of these heterogeneous groups occupy a range of sharply differing positions in that hierarchy, and these two ranges have very little overlap. What’s come to be called intersectionality—the way that social divisions according to gender, race, class, ethnicity, physical disability, and a bubbling cauldron of other factors, intersect with one another to produce the convoluted landscape of American inequality—is a massive factor all through contemporary life in the United States. So is the wretchedly common human habit of “paying it downwards,” in which an abused and exploited group responds by seeking some other group to abuse and exploit in turn.
All these considerations, though, belong to the real world. They are excluded from the artificial world of the Rescue Game, and from the officially approved narrative about race that derives from that game. In the Rescue Game, all members of the group assigned the role of Victim are always, only, and equally Victims, all members of the group assigned the role of Persecutor are always, only, and equally Persecutors, and the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors is the only thing that matters. If anyone tries to bring anyone else’s treatment of anyone else into the game, it’s either dismissed as an irrelevance or denounced as a deliberate, malicious attempt to distract attention from the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors.
The assignment of roles to different categories of people takes place in the opening phase of the Rescue Game. Like most games, this one has an opening phase, a middle period of play, and an endgame, and the opening phase is called “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor.” In this initial phase, teams of Victims bid for the attention of Rescuers by displaying their suffering and denouncing their Persecutors, and the winners are those who attract enough Rescuers to make up a full team. In today’s America, this phase of the game is ongoing, and a great deal of rivalry tends to spring up between teams of Victims who compete for the attention of the same Rescuers. When that rivalry breaks out into open hostilities, as it often does, the result has been called the Oppression Olympics—the bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred struggle over which group of people gets to have its sufferings privileged over everyone else’s.
Once the roles have been assigned and an adequate team of Rescuers attracted, the game moves into its central phase, which is called “Show Trial.” This has two requirements, which are not always met. The first is an audience willing to applaud the Victims, shout catcalls at the Persecutors, and cheer for the Rescuers on cue. The second is a supply of Persecutors who can be convinced or coerced into showing up to play the game. A Rescue Game in which the Persecutors don’t show quickly enters the endgame, with disadvantages that will be described shortly, and so getting the Persecutors to appear is crucial.
This can be done in several ways. If the game is being played with live ammunition—for example, Stalin’s Russia or the deep South after the Civil War—people who have been assigned the role of Persecutors can simply be rounded up at gunpoint and forced to participate. If the people playing the game have some less drastic form of institutional power—for example, in American universities today—participation in the game can be enforced by incentives such as curriculum requirements. Lacking these options, the usual strategies these days are to invite the Persecutors to a supposedly honest dialogue, on the one hand, and to taunt them until they show up to defend themselves, on the other.
However their presence is arranged, once the Persecutors arrive, the action of the game is stereotyped. The Victims accuse the Persecutors of maltreating them, the Persecutors try to defend themselves, and then the Victims and the Rescuers get to bully the Persecutors into silence, using whatever means are allowed by local law and custom. If the game is being played with live ammunition, each round ends with the messy death of one or more Persecutors; the surviving players take a break of varying length, and then the next Persecutor or group of Persecutors is brought in. In less gory forms of the game, the Persecutors are shouted down rather than shot down, but the emotional tone is much the same.
This phase of the game continues until there are no more Persecutors willing or able to act out their assigned role, or until the audience gets bored and wanders away. At this point the action shifts to the endgame, which is called “Circular Firing Squad.” In this final phase of the game, the need for a steady supply of Persecutors is met by identifying individual Victims or Rescuers as covert Persecutors. Since players thus accused typically try to defend themselves against the accusation, the game can go on as before—the Victims bring their accusations, the newly identified Persecutors defend themselves, and then the Victims and Rescuers get to bully them into silence.
The one difficulty with this phase is that each round of the game diminishes the supply of players and makes continuing the game harder and harder. Toward the end, in order to keep the game going, the players commonly make heroic attempts to convince or coerce more people into joining the game, so that they can be “outed” as Persecutors, and the range of things used to identify covert Persecutors can become impressively baroque.  The difficulty, of course, is that very few people are interested in playing a game in which the only role open to them is being accused of violating a code of rules that becomes steadily more subtle, elaborate, and covert with each round of the game, and getting bullied into silence thereafter. Once word gets out, as a result, the game usually grinds to a halt in short order due to a shortage of players. At that point, it’s back to “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” and on we go.
There’s plenty more that could be said here about the details of the Rescue Game and the narrative of race derived from it, but at this point I’d like to consider three broader issues. The first is the relation between the game and the narrative, on the one hand, and the realities of racism in today’s America. I don’t doubt that some readers of this essay will insist that by questioning the narrative, I’m trying to erase the reality.  Not so. Racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice are pervasive factors in American life today.  The fact that the approved narrative of race in today’s America is deceptive and dysfunctional doesn’t make racism any less real; on the other hand, the fact that American racism is a stark reality doesn’t make the narrative any less deceptive and dysfunctional.
The second issue I’d like to consider is whether the same game is played on other playing fields, and the answer is yes. I first encountered the concept of the Rescue Game, in fact, by way of a pamphlet lent to my wife by her therapist sister-in-law, which used it as the basis for an edgy analysis of class conflicts within the lesbian community. From there to the literature on transactional analysis was a short step, and of course it didn’t hurt that I lived in Seattle in those years, where every conceivable form of the Rescue Game could be found in full swing. (The most lively games of “Circular Firing Squad” in town were in the Marxist splinter parties, which I followed via their monthly newspapers; the sheer wallowing in ideological minutiae that went into identifying this or that party member as a deviationist would have impressed the stuffing out of medieval scholastic theologians.)
With impressive inevitability, in fact, every question concerning privilege in today’s America gets turned into a game of “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” in which one underprivileged group is blamed for the problems affecting another underprivileged group, and some group of affluent white people show up to claim the Rescuer’s role.  That, in turn, leads to the third issue I want to consider here, which is the question of who benefits most from the habit of forcing all discussion of privilege in today’s America into the straitjacket of the Rescue Game.
It’s only fair to note that each of the three roles gets certain benefits, though these are distributed in a very unequal fashion. The only thing the people who are assigned the role of Persecutor get out of it is plenty of negative attention. Sometimes that’s enough—it’s a curious fact that hating and being hated can function as an intoxicant for some people—but this is rarely enough of an incentive to keep those assigned the Persecutor’s role willing to play the game for long.
The benefits that go to people who are assigned the role of Victim are somewhat more substantial. Victims get to air their grievances in public, which is a rare event for the underprivileged, and they also get to engage in socially sanctioned bullying of people they don’t like, which is an equally rare treat. That’s all they get, though. In particular, despite reams of the usual rhetoric about redressing injustices and the like, the Victims are not supposed to do anything, or to expect the Rescuers to do anything, to change the conditions under which they live. The opportunities to air grievances and bully others are substitutes for substantive change, not—as they’re usually billed—steps toward substantive change.
The vast majority of the benefits of the game, rather, go to the Rescuers. They’re the ones who decide which team of Victims will get enough attention from Rescuers to be able to start a game.  They’re the ones who enforce the rules, and thus see to it that Victims keep on being victimized and Persecutors keep on persecuting.  Nor is it accidental that in every Rescue Game, the people who get the role of Rescuers are considerably higher on the ladder of social privilege than the people who get given the roles of Victims and Persecutors.
Step back and look at the whole picture, and it’s not hard to see why this should be so. At any given time, after all, there are many different Rescue Games in play, with affluent white people always in the role of Rescuers and an assortment of less privileged groups alternating in the roles of Victims and Persecutors. Perhaps, dear reader, you find it hard to imagine why affluent white people would want to keep everyone else so busy fighting one another that they never notice who benefits most from that state of affairs. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that giving the underprivileged the chance to air their grievances and engage in a little socially sanctioned bullying is a great deal less inconvenient for the affluent than actually taking action to improve the lives of the underprivileged would be. Such thoughts seemingly never enter the minds of most Americans; I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.
**************On an unrelated note, I’m pleased to announce that the latest After Oil anthology, After Oil 4: The Future’s Distant Shores, is now available for sale. Like previous volumes in the series, this one’s packed with first-rate stories about the postpetroleum future, written by Archdruid Report readers; the one wrinkle this time around is that all the stories are set at least one thousand years in the future.
Founders House Publishing is also offering the e-book edition of the first volume in the series, After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, for $2.99 just now. Those of my readers who haven’t yet read the original anthology, and like e-books, might want to give this one a try; if you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat.

The End of Ordinary Politics

Wed, 2016-04-06 11:07
Archdruids may take vacations but politics never sleeps, and during the month that’s elapsed since the last post here on The Archdruid Report, quite a number of things relevant to this blog’s project have gone spinning past the startled eyes of those who pay attention to the US political scene. I’ll get to some of the others in upcoming weeks; the one that caught my attention most forcefully, for reasons I trust my readers will find understandable, was the reaction to a post of mine from a few months back titled Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment.
It’s not uncommon for a post of mine on a controversial subject to get picked up by other blogs and attract a fair amount of discussion and commentary. On the other hand, when something I write takes not much more than a week to become the most-read post in the history of The Archdruid Report, goes on to attract more than half again as many page views as the nearest runner-up, and gets nearly twice as many comments as the most comment-heavy previous post, it’s fair to say that something remarkable has happened. When a follow-up post, The Decline and Fall of Hillary Clinton, promptly became the second most-read post in this blog’s history and attracted even more comments—well, here again, it seems tolerably clear that I managed to hit an exquisitely sensitive nerve.
It may not be an accident, either, that starting about a week after that first post went up, two things relevant to it have started to percolate through the mass media. The first, and to my mind the most promising, is that a few journalists have managed to get past the usual crass stereotypes, and talk about the actual reasons why so many voters have decided to back Donald Trump’s aspirations this year. I was startled to see a thoughtful article by Peggy Noonan along those lines in the Wall Street Journal, and even more astonished to see pieces making similar points in other media outlets—here’s an example,, and here’s another.
Mind you, none of the articles that I saw quite managed to grapple with the raw reality of the situation that’s driving so many wage-earning Americans to place their last remaining hopes for the future on Donald Trump. Even Noonan’s piece, though it’s better than most and makes an important point we’ll examine later, falls short.  In her analysis, what’s wrong is that a privileged subset of Americans have been protected from the impacts of the last few decades of public policy, while the rest of us haven’t had that luxury.  This is true, of course, but it considerably understates things. The class she’s talking about—the more affluent half or so of the salary class, to use the taxonomy I suggested in my post—hasn’t simply been protected from the troubles affecting other Americans.  They’ve profited, directly and indirectly, from the policies that have plunged much of the wage class into impoverishment and misery, and their reliable response to any attempt to discuss that awkward detail shows tolerably clearly that a good many of them are well aware of it.
I’m thinking here, among many other examples along the same lines, of a revealing article earlier this year from a reporter who attended a feminist conference on sexism in the workplace. All the talk there was about how women in the salary class could improve their own prospects for promotion and the like. It so happened that the reporter’s sister works in a wage-class job, and she quite sensibly inquired whether the conference might spare a little time to discuss ways to improve prospects for women who don’t happen to belong to the salary class. Those of my readers who have seen discussions of this kind know exactly what happened next: a bit of visible discomfort, a few vaguely approving comments, and then a resumption of the previous subjects as though no one had made so embarrassing a suggestion.
It’s typical of the taboo that surrounds class prejudice in today’s industrial nations that not even the reporter mentioned the two most obvious points about this interchange. The first, of course, is that the line the feminists at the event drew between those women whose troubles with sexism were of interest to them, and those whose problems didn’t concern them in the least, was a class line. The second is that the women at the event had perfectly valid, if perfectly selfish, reasons for drawing that line. In order to improve the conditions of workers in those wage class industries that employ large numbers of women, after all, the women at the conference would themselves have had to pay more each month for daycare, hairstyling, fashionable clothing, and the like. Sisterhood may be powerful, as the slogans of an earlier era liked to claim, but it’s clearly not powerful enough to convince women in the salary class to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of women who don’t happen to share their privileged status.
To give the women at the conference credit, though, at least they didn’t start shouting about some other hot-button issue in the hope of distracting attention from an awkward question. That was the second thing relevant to my post that started happening the week after it went up. All at once, much of the American left responded to the rise of Donald Trump by insisting at the top of their lungs that the only reason, the only possible reason, that anyone at all supports the Trump campaign is that Trump is a racist and so are all his supporters.
It’s probably necessary to start by unpacking the dubious logic here, so that we can get past that and see what’s actually being said. Does Trump have racial prejudices? No doubt; most white Americans do. Do his followers share these same prejudices? Again, no doubt some of them do—not all his followers are white, after all, a point that the leftward end of the media has been desperately trying to obscure in recent weeks. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that Trump and his followers do indeed share an assortment of racial bigotries. Does that fact, if it is a fact, prove that racism must by definition be the only thing that makes Trump appeal to his followers?
Of course it proves nothing of the kind. You could use the same flagrant illogic to insist that since Trump enjoys steak, and many of his followers share that taste, the people who follow him must be entirely motivated by hatred for vegetarians. Something that white Americans generally don’t discuss, though I’m told that most people of color are acutely aware of it, is that racial issues simply aren’t that important to white people in this country nowadays.  The frantic and passionate defense of racial bigotry that typified the Jim Crow era is rare these days outside of the white-supremacist fringe.  What has replaced it, by and large, are habits of thought and action that most white people consider to be no big deal—and you don’t get a mass movement going in the teeth of the political establishment by appealing to attitudes that the people who hold them consider to be no big deal.
Behind the shouts of “Racist!” directed at the Trump campaign by a great many affluent white liberals, rather, lies a rather different reality. Accusations of racism play a great many roles in contemporary American discourse—and of course the identification of actual racism is among these. When affluent white liberals make that accusation, on the other hand, far more often than not, it’s a dog whistle.
I should probably explain that last phrase for the benefit of those of my readers who don’t speak fluent Internet. A dog whistle, in online jargon, is a turn of phrase or a trope that expresses some form of bigotry while giving the bigot plausible deniability. During the civil rights movement, for example, the phrase “states’ rights” was a classic dog whistle; the rights actually under discussion amounted to the right of white Southerners to impose racial discrimination on their black neighbors, but the White Citizens Council spokesmen who waxed rhapsodic about states’ rights never had to say that in so many words. That there were, and are, serious issues about the balance of power between states and the federal government that have nothing do with race, and thus got roundly ignored by both sides of the struggle, is just one more irony in a situation that had no shortage of them already.
In the same way, the word “racist” in the mouths of the pundits and politicians who have been applying it so liberally to the Trump campaign is a dog whistle for something they don’t want to talk about in so many words. What they mean by it, of course, is “wage class American.”
That’s extremely common. Consider the recent standoff in Oregon between militia members and federal officials. While that was ongoing, wags in the blogosphere and the hip end of the media started referring to the militia members as “Y’all-Qaeda.” Attentive readers may have noted that none of the militia members came from the South—the only part of the United States where “y’all” is the usual second person plural pronoun. To the best of my knowledge, all of them came from the dryland West, where “y’all” is no more common than it is on the streets of Manhattan or Vancouver. Why, then, did the label catch on so quickly and get the predictable sneering laughter of the salary class?
It spread so quickly and got that laugh because most members of the salary class in the United States love to apply a specific stereotype to the entire American wage class. You know that stereotype as well as I do, dear reader. It’s a fat, pink-faced, gap-toothed Southern good ol’ boy in jeans and a greasy T-shirt, watching a NASCAR race on television from a broken-down sofa, with one hand stuffed elbow deep into a bag of Cheez Doodles, the other fondling a shotgun, a Confederate flag patch on his baseball cap and a Klan outfit in the bedroom closet. As a description of wage-earning Americans in general, that stereotype is as crass, as bigoted, and as politically motivated as any of the racial and sexual stereotypes that so many people these days are ready to denounce—but if you mention this, the kind of affluent white liberals who would sooner impale themselves on their own designer corkscrews than mention African-Americans and watermelons in the same paragraph will insist at the top of their lungs that it’s not a stereotype, it’s the way “those people” really are.
Those of my readers who don’t happen to know any people from the salary class, and so haven’t had the opportunity to hear the kind of hate speech they like to use for the wage class, might want to pick up the latest edition of the National Review, and read a really remarkable diatribe by Kevin Williamson—it’s behind a paywall, but here’s a sample.  The motive force behind this tantrum was the fact that many people in the Republican party’s grassroots base are voting in their own best interests, and thus for Trump, rather than falling into line and doing what they’re told by their soi-disant betters. The very idea!  It’s a fine display of over-the-top classist bigotry, as well as a first-rate example of the way that so many people in the salary class like to insist that poverty is always and only the fault of the poor.
May I please be frank? The reason that millions of Americans have had their standard of living hammered for forty years, while the most affluent twenty per cent have become even more affluent, is no mystery. What happened was that corporate interests in this country, aided and abetted by a bipartisan consensus in government and cheered on by the great majority of the salary class, stripped the US economy of living wage jobs by offshoring most of America’s industrial economy, on the one hand, and flooding the domestic job market with millions of legal and illegal immigrants on the other.
That’s why a family living on one average full-time wage in 1966 could afford a home, a car, three square meals a day, and the other necessities and comforts of an ordinary American lifestyle, while a family with one average full time wage in most US cities today is living on the street. None of that happened by accident; no acts of God were responsible; no inexplicable moral collapse swept over the American wage class and made them incapable of embracing all those imaginary opportunities that salary class pundits like to babble about. That change was brought about, rather, by specific, easily identifiable policies. As a result, all things considered, blaming the American poor for the poverty that has been imposed on them by policies promoted by the affluent is the precise economic equivalent of blaming rape victims for the actions of rapists.
In both cases, please note, blaming the victim makes a convenient substitute for talking about who’s actually responsible, who benefits from the current state of affairs, and what the real issues are. When that conversation is one that people who have a privileged role in shaping public discourse desperately don’t want to have, blaming the victim is an effective diversionary tactic, and accordingly it gets much use in the US media these days. There are, after all, plenty of things that the people who shape public discourse in today’s America don’t want to talk about. The fact that the policies pushed by those same shapers of opinion have driven millions of American families into poverty and misery isn’t the most unmentionable of these things, as it happens. The most unmentionable of the things that don’t get discussed is the fact that those policies have failed.
It really is as simple as that. The policies we’re talking about—lavish handouts for corporations and the rich, punitive austerity schemes for the poor, endless wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, malign neglect of domestic infrastructure, and deer-in-the-headlights blank looks or vacuous sound bites in response to climate change and the other consequences of our frankly moronic maltreatment of the biosphere that keeps us all alive—were supposed to bring prosperity to the United States and its allies and stability to the world. They haven’t done that, they won’t do that, and with whatever respect is due to the supporters of Hillary Clinton, four more years of those same policies won’t change that fact. The difficulty here is simply that no one in the political establishment, and precious few in the salary class in general, are willing to recognize that failure, much less learn its obvious lessons or notice the ghastly burdens that those policies have imposed on the majorities who have been forced to carry the costs.
Here, though, we’re in territory that has been well mapped out in advance by one of the historians who have helped guide the project of this blog since its inception. In his magisterial twelve-volume A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee explored in unforgiving detail the processes by which societies fail. Some civilizations, he notes, are overwhelmed by forces outside their control, but this isn’t the usual cause of death marked on history’s obituaries. Far more often than not, rather, societies that go skidding down the well-worn route marked “Decline and Fall” still have plenty of resources available to meet the crises that overwhelm them and plenty of options that could have saved the day—but those resources aren’t put to constructive use and those options never get considered.
This happens, in turn, because the political elites of those failed societies lose the ability to notice that the policies they want to follow don’t happen to work. The leadership of a rising civilization pays close attention to the outcomes of its policies and discards those that don’t work.  The leadership of a falling civilization prefers to redefine “success” as “following the approved policies” rather than “yielding the preferred outcomes,” and concentrates on insulating itself from the consequences of its mistakes rather than recognizing the mistakes and dealing with their consequences. The lessons of failure are never learned, and so the costs of failure mount up until they can no longer be ignored.
This is where Peggy Noonan’s division of the current population into “protected” and “unprotected” classes has something useful to offer. Members of the protected class—in today’s America, as already noted, this is above all the more affluent half or so of the salary class—live within a bubble that screens them from any contact with the increasingly impoverished and immiserated majority. As far as they can see, everything’s fine; all their friends are prospering, and so are they; spin-doctored news stories and carefully massaged statistics churned out by government offices insist that nothing could possibly be wrong. They go from gated residential community to office tower to exclusive restaurant to high-end resort and back again, and the thought that it might be useful once in a while to step outside the bubble and go see what conditions are like in the rest of the country would scare the bejesus out of them if it ever occurred to them at all.
In a rising civilization, as Toynbee points out, the political elite wins the loyalty and respect of the rest of the population by recognizing problems and then solving them. In a falling civilization, by contrast, the political elite forfeits the loyalty and respect of the rest of the population by creating problems and then ignoring them. That’s what lies behind the crisis of legitimacy that occurs so often in the twilight years of a society in decline—and that, in turn, is the deeper phenomenon that lies behind the meteoric rise of Donald Trump.  If a society’s officially sanctioned leaders can’t lead, won’t follow, and aren’t willing to get out of the way, sooner or later people are going to start looking for a way to shove them through history’s exit turnstile, by whatever means turn out to be necessary.
Thus if Trump loses the election in November, that doesn’t mean that the threat to the status quo is over—far from it.  If Hillary Clinton becomes president, we can count on four more years of the same failed and feckless policies, which she’s backed to the hilt throughout her political career, and thus four more years in which millions of Americans outside the narrow circle of affluence will be driven deeper into poverty and misery, while being told by the grinning scarecrows of officialdom that everything is just fine. That’s not a recipe for social stability; those who make peaceful change impossible, it’s been pointed out, make violent change inevitable. What’s more, Trump has already shown every ambitious demagogue in the country exactly how to build a mass following, and he’s also shown a great many wage-earning Americans that there can be alternatives to an intolerable status quo.
No matter how loudly today’s establishment insists that the policies it favors are the only thinkable options, the spiraling failure of those policies, and the appalling costs they impose on people outside the bubble of privilege, guarantee that sooner or later the unthinkable will become the inescapable. That’s the real news of this election season:  the end of ordinary politics, and the first stirrings of an era of convulsive change that will leave little of today’s conventional wisdom intact.
**********************On a not unrelated theme, I’m delighted to announce that my next book from New Society Publishers, Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead, is now available for preorder. Readers who favor the sort of feel-good pablum for the overprivileged marketed by Yes! Magazine and its equivalents will want to give this one a pass. (It’s been suggested to me more than once that if I ran a magazine, it would have to be titled Probably Not! Magazine: A Journal of Realistic Futures.) On the other hand, those who are looking for a sober assessment of the mess into which we’ve collectively backed ourselves, and the likely consequences of that mess over the next five centuries or so, may find it just their cup of astringent tea.

The Decline and Fall of Hillary Clinton

Wed, 2016-02-24 17:47
The last couple of weeks in American politics have offered an interesting confirmation of some of the main themes I’ve discussed on this blog. For that matter, those weeks would have come as no surprise to one of the thinkers whose work has guided these essays since this blog started a decade ago, the philosopher of history Oswald Spengler. I can all too readily imagine the hard lines of Spengler’s face creasing in momentary amusement as he contemplates the temporarily divergent fates of those two candidates for the US presidency that, less than a year ago, nearly everyone insisted would be facing one another in the general election:   Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
Bush is in some ways the perfect poster child for the theme I have in mind just now. When he launched his campaign last year, it was a letter-perfect copy of the successful presidential campaigns of the last three decades. He lined up plenty of big-money sponsors; he assembled a team of ghostwriters, spin doctors, and door-to-door salesmen to run his campaign; he had a PR firm design a catchy logo; he practiced spouting the kind of empty rhetoric that sounds meaningful so long as you don’t think about it for two minutes; he took carefully calculated stands on a handful of hot-button topics, mouthed the conventional wisdom on every other issue, and set out to convince the voters that their interests would be harmed just a little bit less by putting him in the White House than by any of the alternatives.
That sort of content-free campaign is what got George Bush I, Bill Clinton, George Bush II, and Barack Obama onto the list of US presidents. What it got Jeb Bush, though, was a string of humiliating defeats. Some have suggested that his tearful exit from the race in the wake of the South Carolina primary was the act of a child who had been promised a nice shiny presidency by his daddy, and then found out that the mean voters wouldn’t give it to him. I think, though, that there was considerably more to it than that. I think that Bush had just realized, to his shock and horror, that the rules of the game had been changed on him without notice, and all those well-informed, well-connected people who had advised him on the route that would take him to the presidency had basically been smoking their shorts.
If anything, though, Hillary Clinton’s campaign offers an even clearer glimpse into the festering heart of the American political process. She did exactly the same things that Jeb did—it’s indicative that the two of them both splashed their first names across their equally banal campaign logos—and she also managed, as he never did, to get the apparatchiks of her party lined up solidly on her side before the campaigning season got under way. By the ordinary rules of US politics, she should have enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the primaries to the Democratic convention while Jeb Bush wrestled with his opponents, and then gone into the general election with plenty of money to spare, saturating the air waves with a deluge of advertisements designed to convince the American people that four years under her leadership would be ever so slightly less disastrous for them than four years under Bush.
This time, though, the rules have changed. Clinton is facing a spirited challenge from party outsider Bernie Sanders, and though she’ll still probably get the nomination—it’s a source of wry amusement that just now, the Democratic Party’s nominating procedure is significantly less democratic than that of the GOP—it’s pretty clear at this point that she’s not going to get it without a fight. Once she does, in turn, instead of facing another bland insider in a tepid race to the center that can easily be clinched by an ad blitz or two, she’ll be up against Donald Trump, whose popularity soars with every petulant denunciation the pundits of the privileged classes fling at him, whose take-no-prisoners style of bare-knuckle campaigning is exactly the sort of challenge that neither Clinton nor her lumbering campaign staff have shown the least ability to handle, and who is prepared to offer the voters something other than the very slightly lesser of two evils.
Now of course Clinton has made things considerably worse for herself by the way she’s approached the  campaign.  She’s got a whopping case of that weird mental blind spot I labeled, in a post that appeared here last year, “the delusion of control”—the notion, as pervasive as it is preposterous, that when a member of America’s privileged classes does something, the rest of the cosmos is obliged to respond to that action in a wholly passive, wholly mechanical manner. For a world-class example, watch the way Clinton’s handlers simply look blank each time they find out that most of the American people loathe and distrust their candidate, and try repeatedly to “reintroduce” her, as though they think they can just hit a reset button on the campaign machinery and start all over again.
For that matter, Clinton’s own attitude during the campaign so far reminds me of nothing so much as  what happens when someone puts money into a defective vending machine. She’s fed the thing her quarters and pushed the right button, but the desired product hasn’t dropped to the bottom where she can get it.  Now she’s jabbing the button over and over again, and in due time she’ll be pounding her fists on the thing and screaming at it because it won’t give her what she’s paid for.  I honestly don’t think she’s ever, even for a moment, considered the possibility that the voting public isn’t simply a passive, mechanical mass that will spit up a presidency for her if she just manipulates in in the right way.  I doubt it has entered her darkest dream that the American people might just up and decide to cast their votes to further their own interests rather than hers.
That analysis seems plausible to me for a variety of reasons, but high among them is the way that Clinton’s supporters among her own class-and-gender subcategory have demanded that all American women back the Clinton campaign. I’m thinking here particularly of Madeleine Albright, who made the news a little while back with a irate public statement insisting that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”  That’s a common trope among a certain well-paid class of Second Wave feminists. It’s become controversial, and for good reason, among a great many other feminists, particularly in the partly overlapping sets of women of color and women in the wage class. Listen to them, and you’ll hear at some length how they feel about being expected to help rich and influential women like Madeleine Albright pursue their goals, when they know perfectly well the favor won’t be returned in any way that matters.
What, after all, does a Clinton presidency offer the majority of American women, other than whatever vicarious thrill they might get from having a president with a vagina? The economic policies Clinton espouses—the current bipartisan consensus, from which she shows no signs of veering in the slightest—have already brought poverty and misery to millions of American women who don’t happen to share her privileged background and more than ample income.  Her tenure as Secretary of State was marked by exactly the sort of hamfisted interventions in other people’s countries to which Democrats, once upon a time, used to object:  interventions, please note, that have already been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, and may yet—especially if Clinton takes the same attitudes with her into the White House—treat a good many American women to the experience of watching their kids come home in body bags from yet another brutal and pointless Mideast war.
The reaction to Albright’s public tantrum is in many ways as instructive as the tantrum itself. A great many American women simply aren’t buying it. More generally, no matter how furiously Clinton and her flacks hammer on the buttons of the vending machine, trying to elicit the mechanical response they think they ought to be able to expect, the voters aren’t falling into line. Trump and Sanders, each in his own way, have shown too many people that it’s possible to hope for something other than an intolerable state of business as usual.  In the wake of their candidacies, a great many voters have decided that they’re no longer willing to vote for the lesser of two evils.
That’s a point of some importance.  To my mind, it’s far from accidental that for the last few decades, every presidential election here in the US has been enlivened by bumper stickers calling on voters to support the presidential ambitions of Cthulhu, the tentacled primeval horror out of H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic dread. I’m sorry to say that the Elder God’s campaign faces a serious constitutional challenge, as he was spawned on the world of Vhoorl in the twenty-third nebula and currently resides in the drowned corpse-city of R’lyeh, and as far as I know neither of these are US territory. Still, his bid for the White House has gotten further than most other imaginary candidacies, and I’ve long thought that the secret behind that success is Cthulhu’s campaign slogan: “Why settle for the lesser evil?”
The reason that this slogan reliably elicits laughter, in turn, is that the entire rhetoric of presidential politics in the United States for decades now has fixated on the claim that one party’s pet stooge won’t do anything quite as appalling as the other side’s will, even though they all support the same policies and are bought and sold by the same corrupt interests. Over and over again, we’ve been told that we have to vote for whatever candidate this or that party has retched up, because otherwise the other side will get to nominate a Supreme Court justice or two, or get us into another war, or do something else bad.  Any suggestion that a candidate might be expected to do something positive—that he or she might, for example, reject the bipartisan policies that have crashed the standard of living for most Americans, consigned the nation’s infrastructure to malign neglect, and pursued gargantuan corporate welfare programs, such as the worthless F-35 fighter, at the expense of anything more useful or necessary—is dismissed out of hand as “unrealistic.”
What the insurgent candidacies of Trump and Sanders show conclusively, in turn, is that the lesser-evil rhetoric and its fixation on “realistic” politics have just passed their pull date. There are very good reasons for this. The pursuit of the lesser evil means that the best the American people are supposed to hope for is the continuation of the current state of things—that’s what you get, after all, if your only talking points fixate on stopping things from getting worse—and for most Americans today, the current state of things is unbearable. Cratering wages and soaring rents, a legal environment that increasingly denies even basic rights to everybody but corporations and the rich, an economy rigged to load ever-increasing costs on working people while funneling all the benefits to those who already have too much—well, you can fill in the list as well as I can. If you don’t happen to belong to the privileged classes, life in today’s America is rapidly becoming intolerable, and the “realistic” politics that both parties have pursued with equal enthusiasm for decades are directly responsible for making it intolerable.
Thus the reason that a large and growing number of ordinary working Americans are refusing to accept another rehash of the status quo this time around is that their backs are to the wall. That’s a situation that comes up reliably at a certain point in the history of every society, and it’s a source of wry amusement to me that Oswald Spengler predicted the situation currently facing the United States—and, mutatis mutandis, the rest of the industrialized world as well.
Spengler’s historical analysis covers a vast amount of territory, but the point at issue here appears late in the second volume of The Decline of the West, where he sketches out the immediate future of what we call Western industrial civilization and he named the Faustian Culture. His theme was the way that democracies die.  He argued that democracy suffers from a lethal vulnerability, which is that it has no meaningful defenses against the influence of money.  Since most citizens are more interested in their own personal, short-term advantage than they are in the long-term destiny of their nation, democracy turns into a polite fiction for plutocracy just as soon as the rich figure out how to buy votes, a lesson that rarely takes them long to learn.
The problem with plutocracy, in turn, is that it embodies the same fixation on short-term personal advantage that gives it its entry to power, since the only goals that guide the rich in their increasingly kleptocratic rule are immediate personal wealth and gratification. Despite the ravings of economists, furthermore, it simply isn’t true that what benefits the very rich automatically benefits the rest of society as well; quite the contrary, in the blind obsession with personal gain that drives the plutocratic system, the plutocrats generally lose track of the hard fact that too much profiteering can run the entire system into the ground  A democracy in its terminal years thus devolves into a broken society from which only the narrowing circle of the privileged rich derive any tangible benefit. In due time, those excluded from that circle look elsewhere for leadership.
The result is what Spengler calls Caesarism: the rise of charismatic leaders who discover that they can seize power by challenging the plutocrats, addressing the excluded majority, and offering the latter some hope that their lot will be improved. Now and then, the leaders who figure this out come from within the plutocracy itself; Julius Caesar, who contributed his family name to Spengler’s term, was a very rich man from an old-money Senatorial family, and he’s far from the only example. In 1918, Spengler predicted that the first wave of Caesarism in the Western world was about to hit, that it would be defeated by the plutocrats, and that other waves would follow. He was dead right on the first two counts, and the current election suggests that the third prediction will turn out just as accurate.
To a very real extent, Hillary Clinton’s faltering presidential campaign is a perfect microcosm of what Spengler was talking about in his cold analysis of democracy in extremis. Her entire platform presupposes that the only policies the United States can follow are those that have been welded in place since the turn of the millennium: more government largesse for corporations and the rich, more austerity for everyone else, more malign neglect for the national infrastructure and the environment, more wars in the Middle East, and more of the fantastically stupid policy of confrontation—there really is no gentler way to describe it—that has succeeded, against all odds, in uniting Russia, China, Iran, and an assortment of smaller nations against the United States, by convincing their leaders that they have nothing to gain from a US-centric world order and nothing to lose by challenging it.
Those policies have not brought any of the good things their promoters insisted that they were going to bring. Another four years of the same policies aren’t going to change that fact. Every American voter knows these things, and so does Hillary Clinton, which is why her campaign focuses so precisely on everything but the issues that actually concern the majority of American voters today. That’s what lends a savage irony to Madeleine Albright’s brittle demand that American women support Clinton even though, for all practical purposes, she’s offering them very little more than they got from George W. Bush.  Albright’s is the classic voice of a senile plutocracy on its way down, demanding a loyalty from others that it has done precisely nothing to earn.
I suspect we’ll see plenty of the same sort of irony as the current election season lurches toward its end. No doubt Clinton and her flacks will keep on trying to reintroduce her to voters who already know her quite well enough, thank you; no doubt we’ll hear all sorts of encomiums about what a nice person she is—as though that matters one jot to people who know that four more years of the policies she supports may well land them out of a job and out on the street. For that matter, facile claims that everything is fine, the economy is booming, and the American people are happier than they’ve been in decades are already appearing in the mass media. No doubt things look that way if you live in a bubble of privilege, and take good care never to step outside it and see how the other 80% live; for that matter, it’s true that if you take the obscene gains raked in by the privileged few and average them out across the entire population, that looks like economic betterment—but those gains are not being shared by the entire population, and the entire population knows this.
For the connoisseurs of historical irony, there will doubtless be plenty of entertainment to be had in watching the Clinton campaign as it tries one tactic after another to get that vending machine to cough up the prize Clinton so obviously and desperately craves. None of those veerings matter in any broader sense, because Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have already demonstrated that rejecting the consensus of America’s dominant minority is a ticket to electoral success. It’s possible—indeed, I think it’s likely—that Clinton will manage to squeeze past Sanders and get the Democratic nomination by fair means or foul; it’s considerably less likely that she’ll be able to overcome Trump in the general election; but even if she does, others will follow where Trump and Sanders lead, and sooner or later one of them will triumph.
The more likely option just now, I think, is that the Clinton campaign will meet a crushing defeat at Trump’s hands, and the decline and fall of Hillary Clinton will also mark the end of the failed consensus that has dominated American politics for decades. That fact alone doesn’t guarantee improvement; no law requires that whatever policies replace the conventional wisdom must be better. Nonetheless, things will change, and it’s at least possible that some of the changes might remove at least a few of the worst features of the bleak era now stumbling to its end around us.
****************Even archdruids need the occasional break, and it’s been getting on for two years since I last took one. This will therefore be the last post on this blog until April 6. See you then!

Retrotopia: Back To What Worked

Wed, 2016-02-17 16:00
This is the fifteenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator visits another school, catches the flu, and has his first encounter with the Lakeland Republic’s health care system...
***********I made some phone calls the next morning and got my schedule sorted out for the next few days. Now that President Meeker had gotten things sorted out with the Restos, I had a lot of things to discuss with the Lakeland government, and I knew they’d want to know as much as possible about what was going to change following the election back home.
By quarter to nine I was climbing the marble stairs in front of the Capitol, passing a midsized crowd of wide-eyed schoolchildren on a field trip. The morning went into detailed discussions with government officials—Melanie Berger from Meeker’s staff, Stuart Macallan from the State Department, and Jaya Patel from the Department of Commerce—about the potential reset in relations between their country and mine now that Barfield and the Dem-Reps were out on their collective ear. They were frankly better prepared for the discussion than I was; I’d taken the precaution of printing out the position papers from Montrose’s transition team before I got on the train in Pittsburgh, and reviewed them the night before, but it was pretty obvious that the Lakelanders weren’t used to looking things up moment by moment on a veepad and I was.
We had lunch downstairs in the congressional dining room, a big pleasant space with tall windows letting in the autumn sunlight, and then it was up to Meeker’s office and a long afternoon talking with the President. I have no idea to this day if Isaiah Meeker plays poker, but if he does, I pity the other players; the skill with which he tried to lure me into saying more than I should, while gracefully evading any question of mine he didn’t want to answer, was really quite impressive. I’m pretty sure that he ended up with a clearer idea of the incoming administration’s foreign-policy plans than anyone outside of Ellen Montrose’s inner circle was entitled to have, though in exchange I think I got a good sense of how his administration was likely to respond to some of the impending changes in inter-American relations—including some I was pretty sure he didn’t know about yet.
Dinner was at a really pleasant French place two blocks from the Capitol: Berger, Patel, her husband Ramaraj, and me—Macallan had to attend some kind of event at the Texan embassy. The conversation stayed deftly on the edge between too little politics to be interesting and too much to be safe. When I finally got back to my hotel room that night, I sat at the desk writing down my impressions until well past midnight, and then fell into bed.
The next morning I’d scheduled a visit to the Capitol Atheist Assembly’s school, and showed up at nine AM promptly just as classes were getting under way. The drill was nearly the same as at the school in Hicksville; I went to the office and signed in with the secretary, they found someone to show me around, and I sat in the back of the room and watched a couple of classes. I’d wanted to see their math and science classes, and I got my wish, but what I saw wasn’t anything like the math and science I was used to. The kids weren’t learning how to run programs to solve mathematical problems, or watching computer simulations of experiments—no, they were actually solving the problems and doing the experiments themselves. I watched a room full of sixth-graders work their way through a geometrical proof, and a class of eighth-graders hard at work setting up some kind of complicated apparatus with mirrors and prisms that ran out to all four corners of the classroom.
“The Michaelson-Morley experiment,” the teacher explained to me as we stood on one side of the classroom and watched the students and a couple of teacher’s apprentices get everything lined up. He was an old guy with flyaway white hair and disconcertingly blue eyes.  “I don’t know if they teach that outside, but it’s one of the classic experiments in physics.”
“I don’t think I heard of it,” I admitted. “I’m curious why you have them repeat it, rather than just telling them how it came out.”
That got me the classic Lakeland you-don’t-get-it look. “We actually have them replicate a whole series of classic scientific experiments,” he said. “That way, they learn that science isn’t some kind of revelation handed down from on high—it’s a living, growing thing, and it lives and grows when people get their hands dirty running experiments, and replicating them.” He gestured at the hardware. “And by making mistakes. Michaelson-Morley’s a finicky one; the first time they do it, the kids almost always get a different result than Michaelson and Morley got, and once that happens they get to go back over what they did and figure out what happened.”
Right then he got called over by one of the apprentices to help sort out some detail of setting up the apparatus, and my guide and I watched for a few more minutes and then headed for another class. All in all, it was an interesting morning; one thing I noticed is that the kids were never just sitting there being bored and restless, the way they were in every school I’d ever seen back home. I wondered how much that had to do with the fact that the students here were actually doing something active in every class I saw, instead of sitting there staring at screens by the hour.
I left when the students went to lunch. While I’d been inside, a rainstorm had come rolling in off the lake, and though it wasn’t much more than five minutes before a streetcar came to the stop out front, I was pretty wet by the time I climbed on board. I had lunch at the hotel; by then the rain had stopped, and I dodged puddles up to the Capitol and then a block and a half past it, to the office building that housed the Lakeland Republic’s Department of Commerce. I spent all afternoon there with Jaya Patel and half a dozen other Commerce staffers, looking into possible trade deals and sorting out how those would be affected by their tax and tariff policies. It was a productive session but a tiring one, and then we headed off to an Indian place for dinner; by the time I got back to my hotel room I was feeling pretty run down.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that there was more going on than simple tiredness. I felt awful, and the face that confronted me in the mirror looked even worse. I sat down on the side of the hotel bed and tried to figure out what to do. Back home, I’d simply have canceled everything for a week, taken some over-the-counter meds, and waited it out.  You don’t go to a doctor or a hospital in the Atlantic Republic if you can possibly help it—a checkup plus lab work and a simple prescription will cost you the better part of a month’s income even after health insurance pays its cut, and you really don’t want to know how many people end up sick or dead every year because somebody screwed up a diagnosis, or because trade treaties won’t allow the government to pull medicines off the market even if they’re ineffective or worse. I’ve seen the numbers and they’re pretty grim.
Still, I wasn’t at home, and I couldn’t afford to spend the next week doing nothing. After a bit I went over to the packet I’d gotten on arrival, and paged through the paper on getting by in the Lakeland Republic. There was one short paragraph on medical emergencies and another on ordinary health care; this didn’t feel like an emergency, so I read the second one. It told me to call the concierge’s desk, and so as soon as I’d called Melissa Berger and cancelled the day’s meetings, that’s what I did.
“No problem, sir,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “I’ll call Dr. Hammond, find out how soon he can get here, and call you right back. It’ll be just a moment.”
About the time I’d begun to wonder how long “just a moment” was—it probably wasn’t more than five minutes, to be fair—the phone rang. “Mr. Carr? Dr. Hammond’s on his way. He’ll be up to see you in twenty minutes or so.”
Up to see me? I wondered about that. Something I’d read on the metanet once mentioned that a long time ago, doctors used to actually go to people’s homes—I think they called it “making house calls” or something like that. The idea sounded pretty far-fetched to me, but then plenty of things about the Lakeland Republic were pretty far-fetched by the standards I knew. Sure enough, right about twenty minutes after I’d gotten off the phone with the concierge, a crisp knock sounded on the door, and I went to open it.
Dr. Paul Hammond turned out to be a youngish African-American guy dressed like an ordinary Toledo businessman, with a big brown leather case in one hand. We did the usual, and then he sat me down, pulled over a chair, pulled a pen and a notebook out of the big leather case and started asking me questions about my health and the symptoms I’d noticed. After he’d finished with that, he got a thin glass thing that seemed to be some kind of thermometer in my mouth, checked my pulse, used some kind of rig with tubes that went from his ears to an odd-shaped disk to listen to my breathing, and then took the thermometer out, had me stick my tongue out and shone a flashlight down my throat.
“Pretty much what I expected, Mr. Carr,” he said then. “There’s a nasty little 24-hour flu going around, and I’m sorry to say you’ve got it. The good news is that you’ll be over it sometime tomorrow if you take it easy and let your body deal with it. You’ve got a mild fever, but that and the muscle aches are normal for this bug—all we have to do is keep any kind of secondary infection from getting going in your upper respiratory tract or your chest, and you’ll be fine.”
He reached into his case, pulled out a brown glass dropper bottle and what looked for all the world like a package of tea bags. “Twenty drops of this in water every two hours,” he said, indicating the bottle, “and one of these in hot water whenever you feel like it—that’s to treat the muscle aches.”
I picked up the package, gave it a dubious look. Yes, they were tea bags, full of what looked like bits of leaves that I guessed came from a bunch of different plants.
Hammond watched me with an amused look on his face. “The concierge tells me that you’re from outside,” he said. “So you were expecting pills, right, rather than plants.”
“Well, yes.”
“Care to guess where a lot of the ingredients in those pills come from?” 
I gave him a quizzical look.
“Plants. Aspirin comes from willow bark, menthol from mint, and so on—there’s a long list. And here’s the thing—some of these plants have been bred for thousands of years to have the right mix of active compounds to treat this or that health problem. By and large, the kind of pharmaceuticals you’re used to taking pull just one compound out of the mix and use that, because somebody or other decided that it was the ‘active ingredient.’” He shook his head. “I can get you some pills if you really want them, but the tincture and the infusion will actually do you more good.”
That seemed improbable to me, but I was feeling too out of sorts to argue. He wrote down some notes about what to eat, told me what symptoms to watch for, and handed me his card so I could call him if anything out of the ordinary happened. Then he told me he’d check on me the next morning, said goodbye, and headed out the door.
I put twenty drops of the stuff from the dropper bottle into half a glass of water from the tap. It tasted so bad that I filled the glass the rest of the way before choking it down. By then I was feeling really tired, so I crawled back into bed and proceeded to sleep like a stone until past noon. I called room service and got some food, along with hot water for the tea-ish stuff—I figured, what the heck, might as well give it a try. It had an aromatic smell I didn’t recognize at all, but it went down easily enough and it seemed to make my muscles ache less.
That’s basically the way I spent the rest of that day. By sunset, rather to my surprise, I was starting to feel noticeably better, and by morning I felt—not well, exactly, but the sort of weak-but-better feeling that tells you that you’re going to be over an illness pretty soon.
Dr. Hammond showed up again at nine-thirty sharp. He had someone else with him, a wiry kid of eighteen or so—Hammond introduced him as his apprentice Larry Soames. “So how are we feeling?” he asked, as he settled on the same chair he’d used the morning before.
“A lot better,” I admitted. I fielded his questions and then got my temperature, pulse, and so on taken again, while the kid watched and listened and took notes in a little black notebook.
“Excellent,” Hammond said finally. “You ought to take the rest of today off, too, but if you do that you should be back on your feet again tomorrow.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “and thank you. Now how much do I owe you?”
“You don’t,” he said, with a broad smile. “I gather nobody’s told you how we do health care here.” When I shook my head:  “It’s pretty simple, really. Doctors like me—general practitioners—contract with businesses, churches, or citizen’s groups to provide basic health care.  That used to be common all over the old United States a century and a half ago.  My contract’s with the hotel; I get a flat monthly salary from them, and in return I provide all the primary health care for the employees and the guests.”
“What if somebody gets something a general practitioner can’t treat?”
“Well, of course, then I refer them to a specialist, and people have health insurance to cover that—but that’s not really that common, all things considered.”
That surprised me.  Back home, if you want to risk going to a doctor, you pretty much have to go to a specialist in whatever’s the matter, and if more than one part of your body is involved you’d better hope the specialists you get are willing to talk to each other or you’re going to land in a world of hurt.
“You don’t have a lot of general practitioners back home, I imagine,” he said then.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met one,” I admitted.
“Well, there you are. Here, probably ninety per cent of the physicians are GPs, and if you want to get into med school and become a specialist you pretty much have to go through an apprenticeship and then work as a GP for at least a few years first.  That way you remember that your job’s to treat patients, and not just a heart or an endocrine system or what have you.”
“Hold it,” I said. “You don’t go to med school to become a GP?”
“Not usually, no.” With another broad smile: “Back in the old Union, the universities got really good at inserting themselves into just about every job category you can think of as a job requirement. It was a big moneymaker for the academic industry but it didn’t work very well for anybody else—you’d go to college and learn a bunch of things dreamed up by people who didn’t actually work in the field, and then you’d graduate and have to unlearn most of it once you were on the job. We ditched all that after Partition; outside of a very few fields, most of them scholarly, it’s pretty much all apprenticeship.”
He nodded at Larry. “Six years from now, when he’s done with his apprenticeship, he’ll have years of hands-on experience to go with what he’s learning from the books, and once he passes his board exams he’ll be ready to start treating patients on his own right away. That’s the way it used to be done, you know—by apprenticeship, followed by state board exams. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects, all the skilled professions used to be that way, and it worked better, so we went back to it.”
He got up. “But that’s neither here nor there. Take it easy for the rest of the day, and if you feel worse—or if you get any of the symptoms I mentioned—give me a call right away. Okay? Excellent. Well, Mr. Carr, have a great day.”
They left, and I lay back down and eventually dozed off again.

Renewables: The Next Fracking?

Wed, 2016-02-10 15:45
I'd meant this week’s Archdruid Report post to return to Retrotopia, my quirky narrative exploration of ways in which going backward might actually be a step forward, and next week’s post to turn a critical eye on a common but dysfunctional habit of thinking that explains an astonishing number of the avoidable disasters of contemporary life, from anthropogenic climate change all the way to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Still, those entertaining topics will have to wait, because something else requires a bit of immediate attention. In my new year’s predictions a little over a month ago, as my regular readers will recall, I suggested that photovoltaic solar energy would be the focus of the next big energy bubble. The first signs of that process have now begun to surface in a big way, and the sign I have in mind—the same marker that provided the first warning of previous energy bubbles—is a shift in the rhetoric surrounding renewable energy sources.
Broadly speaking, there are two groups of people who talk about renewable energy these days. The first group consists of those people who believe that of course sun and wind can replace fossil fuels and enable modern industrial society to keep on going into the far future. The second group consists of people who actually live with renewable energy on a daily basis. It’s been my repeated experience for years now that people belong to one of these groups or the other, but not to both.
As a general rule, in fact, the less direct experience a given person has living with solar and wind power, the more likely that person is to buy into the sort of green cornucopianism that insists that sun, wind, and other renewable resources can provide everyone on the planet with a middle class American lifestyle. Conversely, those people who have the most direct knowledge of the strengths and limitations of renewable energy—those, for example, who live in homes powered by sunlight and wind, without a fossil fuel-powered grid to cover up the intermittency problems—generally have no time for the claims of green cornucopianism, and are the first to point out that relying on renewable energy means giving up a great many extravagant habits that most people in today’s industrial societies consider normal.
Debates between members of these two groups have enlivened quite a few comment pages here on The Archdruid Report. Of late, though—more specifically, since the COP-21 summit last December came out with yet another round of toothless posturing masquerading as a climate agreement—the language used by the first of the two groups has taken on a new and unsettling tone.
Climate activist Naomi Oreskes helped launch that new tone with a diatribe in the mass media insisting that questioning whether renewable energy sources can power industrial society amounts to “a new form of climate denialism.” The same sort of rhetoric has begun to percolate all through the greenward end of things: an increasingly angry insistence that renewable energy sources are by definition the planet’s only hope, that of course the necessary buildout can be accomplished fast enough and on a large enough scale to matter, and that no one ought to be allowed to question these articles of faith.
There are plenty of points worth making about what this sort of rhetoric implies about the current state of the green movement, and I’ll get to some of those  shortly, but the issue that comes first to mind—typically enough for this blog—is a historical one: we’ve been here before.
When this blog first got going, back in 2006, the energy resource that was sure to save industrial civilization from the consequences of its own bad decisions was biofuels. Those of my readers who were paying attention to the peak oil scene in those days will remember the grandiose and constantly reiterated pronouncements about the oceans of ethanol from American corn and the torrents of biodiesel from algae that were going to sweep away the petroleum age and replace fossil fuels with all the cheap, abundant, carbon-neutral liquid fuel anyone could want. Those who raised annoying questions—and yes, I was one of them—got reactions that swung across a narrow spectrum from patronizing putdowns to furious denunciation.
As it turned out, of course, the critics were right and the people who insisted that biofuels were going to replace petroleum and other fossil fuels were dead wrong. There were at least two problems, and both of them could have been identified—and in fact were identified—well in advance, by that minority who were willing to take a close look at the underlying data.
The first problem was that the numbers simply didn’t work out. It so happens, for example, that if you grow corn using standard American agricultural methods, and convert that corn into ethanol using state of the art industrial fermenters and the like, the amount of energy you have to put into that whole process is more than you get by burning the resulting ethanol. Equally, it so happens that if you were to put every square inch of arable farmland in the world into biofuel crops, leaving none for such trivial uses as feeding the seven billion human beings on this planet, you still wouldn’t get enough biofuel to replace the world’s annual consumption of transportation fuels. Neither of these points were hard to figure out, and the second one was well known in the appropriate tech scene of the 1970s—you’ll find it, for example, in the pages of William Catton’s must-read book Overshoot—but somehow the proponents of ethanol and biodiesel missed it.
The second problem was a little more complex, but not enough so to make it impossible to figure out in advance. This was that the process of biofuel production and consumption had impacts of its own. Divert a significant fraction of the world’s food supply into the fuel tanks of people in a handful of rich countries—and of course this is what all that rhetoric about fueling the world amounted to in practice—and the resulting spikes in food prices had disastrous impacts across the Third World, triggering riots and quite a number of countries and outright revolutions in more than one.
Meanwhile rain forests in southeast Asia got clearcut so that palm oil plantations could supply the upper middle classes of Europe and America with supposedly sustainable biodiesel. It could have gotten much worse, except that the underlying economics were so bad that not that many years into the biofuels boom, companies started going broke at such a rate that banks stopped lending money for biofuel projects; some of the most highly ballyhooed algal biodiesel projects turned out to be, in effect, pond scum ponzi schemes; and except for those enterprises that managed to get themselves a cozy spot as taxpayer-supported subsidy dumpsters, the biofuel boom went away.
It was promptly replaced by another energy resource that was sure to save industrial civilization. Yes, that would be hydrofracturing of oil- and gas-bearing shales, or to give it its popular moniker, fracking. For quite a while there, you couldn’t click through to an energy-related website without being assailed with any number of grandiose diatribes glorifying fracking as a revolutionary new technology that, once it was applied to vast, newly discovered shale fields all over North America, was going to usher in a new era of US energy independence. Remember the phrase “Saudi America”? I certainly do.
Here again, there were two little problems with these claims, and the first was that once again the numbers didn’t work out. Fracking wasn’t a new technological breakthrough—it’s been used on oil fields since the 1940s—and the “newly discovered” oil fields in North Dakota and elsewhere were nothing of the kind; they were found decades ago and the amount of oil in them, which was well known to petroleum geologists, did not justify the wildly overinflated claims made for them. There were plenty of other difficulties with the so-called “fracking revolution,” including the same net energy issue that ultimately doomed the “biodiesel revolution,” but we can leave those for now, and go on to the second little problem with fracking. 
This was the awkward fact that the fracking industry, like the biodiesel industry, had impacts of its own that weren’t limited to the torrents of new energy it was supposed to provide. All across the more heavily fracked parts of the United States, homeowners discovered that their tap water was so full of methane that they could ignite it with a match, while some had to deal with the rather more troubling consequences of earthquake swarms and miles-long trains of fracked fuels rolling across America’s poorly maintained railroad network. Then there was the methane leakage into the atmosphere—I don’t know that anybody’s been able to quantify that, but I suspect it’s had more than a little to do with the abrupt spike in global temperatures and extreme weather events over the last decade.
Things might have gotten much worse, except here again the underlying economics of fracking were so bad that not that many years into the fracking boom, companies have started going broke at such a rate that banks are cutting back sharply on lending for fracking projects. As I write this, rumors are flying in the petroleum industry that Chesapeake Petroleum, the biggest of the early players in the US fracking scene, is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy, and quite a few very large banks that lent recklessly to prop up the fracking boom are loudly proclaiming that everything is just fine while their stock values plunge in panic selling and the rates other banks charge them for overnight loans spike upwards.
Unless some enterprising fracking promoter figures out how to elbow his way to the government feed trough, it’s pretty much a given that fracking will shortly turn back into what it was before the current boom: one of several humdrum technologies used to scrape a little extra oil out from mostly depleted oil fields. That, in turn, leaves the field clear for the next overblown “energy revolution” to be rolled out—and my working ghess is that the focus of this upcoming round of energy hype will be renewable energy resources: specifically, attempts to power the electrical grid with sun and wind. 
In a way, that’s convenient, because we don’t have to wonder whether the two little problems with biofuels and fracking also apply to this application of solar and wind power. That’s already been settled; the research was done quite a while ago, and the answer is yes.
To begin with, the numbers are just as problematic for solar and wind power as they were for biofuels and fracking. Examples abound: real world experience with large-scale solar electrical generation systems, for example, show dismal net energy returns; the calculations of how much energy can be extracted from wind that have been used to prop up windpower are up to two orders of magnitude too high; more generally, those researchers who have taken the time to crunch the numbers—I’m thinking here especially, though not only, of Tom Murphy’s excellent site Do The Math—have shown over and over again that for reasons rooted in the hardest of hard physics, renewable energy as a source of grid power can’t live up to the sweeping promises made on its behalf.
Equally, renewables are by no means as environmentally benign as their more enthusiastic promoters claim. It’s true that they don’t dump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as burning fossil fuels do—and my more perceptive readers may already have noted, by the way, the extent to which talk about the very broad range of environmental blowbacks from modern industrial technologies has been supplanted by a much narrower focus on greenhouse gas-induced anthropogenic global warming, as though this is the only issue that matters—but the technologies needed to turn sun and wind into grid electricity involve very large volumes of rare metals, solvents, plastics, and other industrial products that have substantial carbon footprints of their own.
And of course there are other problems of the same kind, some of which are already painfully clear. A number of those rare metals are sourced from open-pit mines in the Third World worked by slave labor; the manufacture of most solvents and plastics involves the generation of a great deal of toxic waste, most of which inevitably finds its way into the biosphere; wind turbines are already racking up an impressive death toll among birds and bats—well, I could go on. Nearly all of modern industrial society’s complex technologies are ecocidal to one fairly significant degree or another, and the fact that a few of them extract energy from sunlight or wind doesn’t keep them from having a galaxy of nasty indirect environmental costs.
Thus the approaching boom in renewable energy will inevitably bring with it a rising tide of ghastly news stories, as corners get cut and protections overwhelmed by whatever degree of massive buildout gets funded before the dismal economics of renewable energy finally take their inevitable toll. To judge by what’s happened in the past, I expect to see plenty of people who claim to be concerned about the environment angrily dismissing any suggestion that the renewable energy industry has anything to do with, say, soaring cancer rates around solar panel manufacturing plants, or whatever other form the inevitable ecological blowback takes. The all-or-nothing logic of George Orwell’s invented language Newspeak is astonishingly common these days: that which is good (because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels) can’t possibly be ungood (because it isn’t economically viable and also has environmental problems of its own), and to doubt the universal goodness of what’s doubleplusgood—why, that’s thoughtcrime...
Things might get very ugly indeed, all things considered, except that the underlying economics of renewable energy as a source of grid electricity aren’t noticeably better than those of fracking or corn ethanol. Six to ten years down the road, as a result, the bankruptcies and defaults will begin, banks will start backing away from the formerly booming renewables industry, and the whole thing will come crashing down, the way ethanol did and fracking is doing right now. That will clear the way, in turn, for whatever the next energy boom will be—my guess is that it’ll be nuclear power, though that’s such a spectacular money-loser that any future attempt to slap shock paddles on the comatose body of the nuclear power industry may not get far.
It probably needs to be said at this point that one blog post by an archdruid isn’t going to do anything to derail the trajectory just sketched out. Ten thousand blog posts by Gaia herself, cosigned by the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Captain Planet and the Planeteers probably wouldn’t do the trick either. I confidently expect this post to be denounced furiously straight across the green blogosphere over the next couple of weeks, and at intervals thereafter; a few years from now, when dozens of hot new renewable-energy startups are sucking up million-dollar investments from venture capitalists and planning their initial IPOs, such few references as this and similar posts field will be dripping with patronizing contempt; then, when reality sets in, the defaults begin and the banks start backing away, nobody will want to talk about this essay at all.
It probably also needs to be pointed out that I’m actually very much in favor of renewable energy technologies, and have discussed their importance repeatedly on this blog. The question I’ve been trying to raise, here and elsewhere, isn’t whether or not sun and wind are useful power sources; the question is whether it’s possible to power industrial civilization with them, and the answer is no.
That doesn’t mean, in turn, that we’ll just keep powering industrial civilization with fossil fuels, or nuclear power, or what have you. Fossil fuels are running short—as oilmen like to say, depletion never sleeps—and nuclear power is a hopelessly uneconomical white-elephant technology that has never been viable anywhere in the world without massive ongoing government subsidies. Other options? They’ve all been tried, and they don’t work either.
The point that nearly everyone in the debate is trying to evade is that the collection of extravagant energy-wasting habits that pass for a normal middle class lifestyle these days is, in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. Those habits only became possible in the first place because our species broke into the planet’s supply of stored carbon and burnt through half a billion years of fossil sunlight in a wild three-century-long joyride. Now the needle on the gas gauge is moving inexorably toward that threatening letter E, and the joyride is over. It really is as simple as that.
Thus the conversation that needs to happen now isn’t about how to keep power flowing to the grid; it’s about how to reduce our energy consumption so that we can get by without grid power, using local microgrids and home-generated power to meet sharply reduced needs.We don’t need more energy; we need much, much less, and that implies in turn that we—meaning here especially the five per cent of our species who live within the borders of the United States, who use so disproportionately large a fraction of the planet’s energy and resources, and who produce a comparably huge fraction of the carbon dioxide that’s driving global warming—need to retool our lives and our lifestyles to get by with the sort of energy consumption that most other human beings consider normal.
Unfortunately that’s not a conversation that most people in America are willing to have these days. The point that’s being ignored here, though, is that if something’s unsustainable, sooner or later it will not be sustained. We can—each of us, individually—let go of the absurd extravagances of the industrial age deliberately, while there’s still time to do it with some measure of grace, or we can wait until they’re pried from our cold and stiffening fingers, but one way or another, we’re going to let go of them. The question is simply how many excuses for delay will be trotted out, and how many of the remaining opportunities for constructive change will go whistling down the wind, before that happens.

Whatever Happened to Peak Oil?

Wed, 2016-02-03 17:46
A few months from now, this blog will complete its tenth year of more-or-less-weekly publication. In words the Grateful Dead made famous, it’s been a long strange trip:  much longer and stranger than I had any reason to expect, certainly, when I typed up that first essay and got it posted on what was still, to me, the alien landscape of the blogosphere.
Over the years since that first tentative post, the conversations here have strayed into some remarkably odd territory:  the history of apocalyptic ideas, the nature of magic, the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, and a good deal more.  All through its vagaries, though, this blog’s central focus remains what it has been since shortly after its 2006 launch: the difficult but necessary task of facing up to the end of the  arrival of hard limits to growth, and the collapse of all those fantasies of perpetual progress that so many people today still use to keep themselves from thinking about the future ahead of us.
That said, my longtime readers may be wondering about the relative absence in recent posts of one of the core themes of this blog’s earlier days. Yes, that would be peak oil.
For those who’ve come to this blog recently, it maybe helpful to point out that this simple phrase refers to a complicated concatenation of ideas. First, despite claims made by rap musician BoB and the few other flat-earthers out there, I think most of us are aware that the Earth is a sphere a little more than 7900 miles across. That means, among many other things, that the Earth contains a finite amount of petroleum—and this in turn means that each barrel of petroleum that gets pumped out of the ground brings us closer to the point at which there’s no more left.
Second, getting oil out of the ground isn’t just a matter of sticking an iron straw into a hydrocarbon milkshake. There aren’t big underground lakes of oil; what you’ve got instead are cracks and pores in solid rock through which oil oozes slowly. Thus production from an oil well usually starts off slowly, rises to a steady flow, and then gradually dwindles away to a trickle as the available oil runs out. Oil fields follow much the same curve: the first successful wells bring up oil, many more wells get drilled, and then you drill new wells to make up for declining production in the old ones, until eventually there are no more places to drill and you’ve got a played-out field. The point at which you can’t drill enough new wells to make up for declining production from the old ones is the point at which the output from the field peaks and begins to decline.
Third, the same thing is true of what geologists call oil provinces—these are regions, such as the Marcellus shale, where you can find a bunch of oil in a bunch of fields that all have more or less the same geology. The reason’s the same: in an oil province, just as in an oil field, production increases at first as new wells go in, then peaks and begins to decline as you run out of enough places to drill new wells to make up for the depletion of the old ones. Apply the same logic to entire countries, and to the whole Earth, and it works just as well. The phrase “peak oil” is a label for the point at which drilling new wells can’t keep up with the depletion of existing wells worldwide, and the overall production of petroleum worldwide begins to decline.
That’s all very straightforward. Back in the late 1990s, when a handful of researchers started to pay attention to the widening gap between the rate at which oil was being pumped out of existing fields and the rate at which new fields were being discovered, that straightforward logic led most of them to equally linear conclusions.  At some point in the near future, they suggested, petroleum production would peak and then tip over into irreversible decline, petroleum prices would soar through the skylights, and a cascade of difficult consequences would promptly follow.
That latter point was by no means an arbitrary assumption. Petroleum then as now accounts for the largest share of global energy consumption, amounting to roughly forty per cent of all energy, including almost all the energy used in the transportation sector. Claims that petroleum products could easily be replaced by other energy sources ignored the hard reality that most other energy sources were already being used as fast as they could be extracted. Claims that imminent technological breakthroughs would surely keep any of these things from happening ignored the equally hard reality that most of those supposed breakthroughs had been tried repeatedly in the past and hadn’t worked.
All this had been discussed at great length back in the 1970s, when the United States hit its own all-time production peak and began skidding down the far side. The issue of peak oil got swept under the rug during the Reagan era and ignored by almost everyone thereafter; by the time the alarm was finally sounded again in the late 1990s, it was painfully clear that most of the time that would have been needed to get ready for peak oil had already been wasted. The result, according to most serious peak oil researchers at that time, would be a traumatic era of economic, political, and cultural turmoil in which a global civilization used to depending on oceans of cheap abundant crude oil got squeezed by steadily decreasing supplies at steadily soaring prices. That was the peak oil standard scenario.
Those of my readers who know their way around the apocalyptic end of the blogosophere, even if they weren’t paying attention at the time, will have no problem figuring out exactly what happened from that point on. Inevitably, the base case was turned into a launching pad for any number of lurid prophecies of imminent doom. The common contemporary habit of apocalypse machismo—“I can imagine a cataclysm more hideous and all-encompassing than you can!”—kicked into gear, and the resulting predictions interbred like hyperactive bunnies until the straightforward mathematics of peak oil were all but buried under a vast tottering heap of giddy fantasy.
Now of course none of those lavishly imagined catastrophes happened. That’s hardly surprising, as identical fantasies have been retailed on every imaginable provocation for decades now—swap out the modern details for their equivalents in previous eras, for that matter, and you can replace that word “decades” with “centuries” and still be correct. What did manage to surprise a good many people is that the standard scenario didn’t happen either. That’s not to say that everything was fine and dandy; as we’ll see, quite a bit of the economic, political, and social turmoil we’ve seen since 2005 or so was in fact driven by the impact of peak oil—but that impact didn’t follow the linear model that most peak oil writers expected it to follow
To understand what happened instead, it’s necessary to keep two things in mind that were usually forgotten back when the peak oil scene was at white heat, and still generally get forgotten today. The first is that while the supply of petroleum is ultimately controlled by geology, the demand for it is very powerfully influenced by market forces. Until 2004, petroleum production worldwide had been rising steadily for decades as new wells were brought on line fast enough to more than offset the depletion of existing fields. In that year, depletion began to catch up with drilling, and the price of oil began to rise steadily, and two things happened as a result.
The first of these was a massive flow of investment money into anything that could make a profit off higher oil prices. That included a great many boondoggles and quite a bit of outright fraud, but it also meant that plenty of oil wells that couldn’t make a profit when oil was $15 a barrel suddenly looked like paying propositions when the price rose to $55 a barrel. The lag time necessary to bring oil from new fields onto the market meant that the price of oil kept rising for a while, luring more investment money into the oil industry and generating a surge in future supply.
The problem was that the same spike in oil prices that brought all that new investment into the industry also had a potent impact on the consumption side of the equation. That impact was demand destruction, which can be neatly defined as the process by which those who can’t afford something stop buying it. Demand destruction also has a lag time—when the price of oil goes up, it takes a while for people to decide that higher prices are here to stay and change their lifestyles accordingly
The result was a classic demonstration of one of the ways that the “invisible hand” of the market is a good deal less benevolent than devout economists like to pretend. Take the same economic stimulus—the rising price of oil—and factor in lag times on its effects on both production and consumption, and you get a surge in new supply landing right about the time that demand starts dropping like a rock. That’s what happened in 2009, when the price of oil plunged from around $140 a barrel to around $30 a barrel in a matter of months. That’s also what happened in 2015, when prices lurched down by comparable figures for the same reason: surging supply and plunging demand hitting the oil market at the same time, after a long period when everyone assumed that the sky was the limit.
Could the bloggers and researchers in the pre-2009 peak oil scene have predicted all this in advance? Why, yes, and as a matter of fact a few of us did.  The problem was that we were very much in the minority. True believers in an imminent peak oil apocalypse denounced the analysis just outlined with quite some heat, to be sure, but I also quickly lost count of the number of earnest, intelligent, well-informed people who tried to convince me that I had to be wrong and the standard scenario had to be right.
The conventional wisdom in the peak oil scene missed something else, though, and that’s had a huge impact on this most recent boom-and-bust cycle. The convenient label “petroleum” actually covers many different kinds of hydrocarbon goo, and these are found in many different kinds of rock, scattered unevenly across the surface of the planet. Some kinds of goo are cheap to extract and refine, but many more aren’t. Since oil companies are in the business of making money, they quite sensibly started out by going after the stuff that was cheap to extract and  refine. When that ran out, they went after the stuff that was a little more expensive, and so on.
All this seems ordinary enough—after all, every other mineral resource has gone through the same curve; the low-grade taconite that goes into today’s iron smelters has a tiny fraction of the amount of iron per ton of ore that the lowest grades of commercially mined iron ore had a century ago. There’s a little problem here, though, which is that the difference in concentration between today’s taconite and yesterday’s better ores is made up by adding energy to the equation. It takes vastly more energy to make a steel I-beam today than it did in 1916, and most of that is a function of the fact that the lower the quality of ore, the more energy you have to invest in getting out each pound of iron from it.
This is also true of petroleum—but there’s a catch, because the point of extracting the petroleum in the first place is that you can get energy out of it. It’s at this point that we start talking about net energy.
Net energy is to energy what profit is to income. To get, let’s say, one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) of energy, you have to invest a certain amount of energy in the process of extracting and refining it, and the amount you have to invest varies dramatically depending on what kind of hydrocarbon goo we’re talking about. What oilmen call “light sweet crude”—that is, petroleum that’s relatively high in light fractions, and free of sulfur and other contaminants—from the sort of shallow wells that built the US oil industry has a net energy of anything up to 200 to 1: in other words, less than a quart out of each 42-gallon barrel of oil goes to paying off the energy cost of extraction, and the rest is pure profit.
As you slide down the grades of hydrocarbon goo, though, that pleasant equation gets replaced by figures considerably less genial. Your average barrel of oil from a conventional US oilfield today has a net energy around 30 to 1, meaning that just under a gallon and a half of the oil in each barrel goes to pay off the energy cost of extraction. That’s still good, but it’s nothing like as good.
The surge of new petroleum that hit the oil market just in time to help drive the current crash of oil prices, though, didn’t come from 30-to-1 conventional oil wells, for the simple reason that every oil province in North America capable of bringing in that kind of yield was prospected many decades ago and is producing oil at ful tilt right now if it wasn’t drained to the bare rock long ago. What produced the surge this time was a mix of tar sands and hydrofractured shales, which are a very, very long way down the goo curve.
Neither one of them, as it happens, actually yields petroleum. From tar sands, as the name suggests, you get tar, which can be cut with solvents and shipped to special refineries where, if you’re willing to spend the money, you can break them down into the same things you can get much more cheaply from conventional crude oil. From hydrofractured shales, you get mostly very light hydrocarbons, the sort of thing that’s better suited to filling disposable lighters than it is to fueling your car. Both of these still got lumped in with conventional petroleum in the official statistics, which made it much easier for the New York Times and other highbrow propaganda outlets to pretend at the top of their lungs that peak oil doesn’t matter—there’s a rant to this effect somewhere in the Times every couple of months, which may suggest a certain basic insecurity at work, but that’s a theme for another post.
The real difficulty with the goo you get from tar sands and hydrofractured shales is that you have to put a lot more energy into getting each BOE of energy out of the ground and into usable condition than you do with conventional crude oil. The exact figures are a matter of dispute, and factoring in every energy input is a fiendishly difficult process, but it’s certainly much less than 30 to 1—and credible estimates put the net energy of tar sands and hydrofractured shales well down into single digits.
Now ask yourself this: where is the energy that has to be put into the extraction process coming from?
The answer, of course, is that it’s coming out of the same global energy supply to which tar sands and hydrofractured shales are supposedly contributing.
That’s the other half of the picture, as we stumble across the unfamiliar landscape on the far side of peak oil. The jagged landscape of booms and busts will doubtless continue for some time—it would not surprise me at all if the busts kept on coming at something like the six-year interval separating the 2009 and 2015 debacles—and each cycle will hammer the global economy in an assortment of familiar and unfamiliar ways, spreading collateral damage far and wide. Meanwhile the net energy of oil production will slide unsteadily downhill as older resources are exhausted and newer ones, with much steeper energy costs for extraction and refining, have to be brought on line to replace them.
The decline in net energy won’t be visible in the places you’d expect, either. As long as the hard facts of geology make it physically possible to do so, large volumes of “petroleum,” in some sense of that increasingly flexible word, will continue to be produced and consumed. With each year that passes, though, a larger fraction of that output will have to cycle right back into the extraction and refining process, leaving less and less available for all other uses. Thus declining net energy promises to play out over time in the form of creeping dysfunction throughout the economic sphere, in the form of neglected and abandoned infrastructure, failing institutions, a rising tide of permanent joblessness and homelessness, all papered over with an increasingly brittle layer of propaganda spewed out with equal enthusiam from the partisans of every officially acceptable point of view. (If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you need to get out more.)
That’s not going to reverse itself, either, because the resources that would be needed to flood the world with cheap abundant energy again don’t exist any more. We, ahem, burned them all. Again, the Earth is a sphere a little more than 7900 miles across; it never held that much in the way of concentrated energy resources in the first place, and our species squandered everything in our reach in three centuries or so of wretched excess.  The cycles of contraction and dysfunction just outlined are part of the process by which that excess is going away, leaving us with, at most, roughly the same sort of access to energy and its products that our ancestors had before the Industrial Revolution.
We could have made that transition in a controlled and intelligent way, and we didn’t—but that doesn’t excuse us from having to make it anyway. It’s just that we’re being dragged kicking and screaming into the future by forces we chose to ignore but can’t evade. Peak oil is one of those forces; anthropogenic climate change, which has been discussed here extensively already, is another—and it’s another that has been bedeviled by the sort of overly linear thinking on the one hand, and apocalyptic fantasy-spinning on the other, that crippled the peak oil community’s capacity to anticipate the future.
In an upcoming post, I plan on talking about some of the broader lessons to be drawn from that failure—and in the process, I intend to deliver a good hard stomp to one of the habits of thought that did the most to land us in this mess.