AODA Blog

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.

Retrotopia: Lines of Separation

Wed, 2016-01-27 19:18
This is the fourteenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator returns from his trip to a tier one county full of doubts about the Lakeland Republic’s prospects, and has those at once challenged and sharpened by a conversation at the local Atheist Assembly...
***********I’d had lunch with Ruth Mellencamp at a pleasant little diner a block from the station before I caught the train, so I had nothing to do until I got to Defiance but watch farmland roll by and think about what I’d seen since I’d crossed the border less than a week before. My reactions were an odd mix of reluctant admiration and unwilling regret. The people of the Lakeland Republic had taken a situation that would have crushed most countries—an international embargo backed up with repeated attempts at regime change—and turned it into their advantage, using isolation from the capital flows and market pressures of the global economy to give them space to return to older ways of doing things that actually produced better results than the modern equivalents.
The problem with that, I told myself, was that it couldn’t last. That was the thing that had bothered me, the night after I’d toured the New Shaker settlement, though it had taken another day to come into focus. The whole Lakeland Republic was like the New Shakers, the sort of fragile artificial construct that only worked because it isolated itself from the rest of the world. Now that the embargo was over and the borders with the other North American republics were open, the isolation was gone, and I didn’t see any reason to think the Republic’s back-to-the-past ideology would be strong enough by itself in the face of the overwhelming pressures the global economy could bring to bear.
That wasn’t even the biggest challenge they faced, though. The real challenge was progress—the sheer onward momentum of science and technology in the rest of the world. Sure, I admitted, the Lakeland Republic had done some very clever things with old technology—the Frankens blowing drones out of the sky with a basement-workshop maser kept coming to mind—but sooner or later the habit of trying to push technology into reverse gear was going to collide catastrophically with the latest round of scientific or technical breakthroughs, with or without military involvement, and leave the Lakelanders with the hard choice between collapse and a return to the modern world.
A week earlier, I probably would have considered that a good thing. As the train rolled into Defiance, I wasn’t so sure. The thing was, the Lakeland Republic really had managed some impressive things with  their great leap backward, and in a certain sense, it was a shame that progress was going to steamroller them in due time. Most of the time, people say “progress” and they mean that things get better, but it was sinking in that this wasn’t always true.
I picked up a copy of that day’s Toledo Blade from a newsboy in the Defiance station, and used that as an excuse to think about something else once I boarded the train back to Toledo. The previous day’s drone shoot was right there on page one, with a nice black and white picture of Maude Duesenberg getting her sixth best-of-shoot trophy, and a big feature back in the sports section with tables listing how all the competitors had done.  I didn’t pay attention to anything else on the front page at first, though, because another satellite had been hit.
The Progresso IV and the the Russian telecom satellite were bad enough, but this one was a good deal worse, because it was parked in a graveyard orbit—one of the orbital zones where everybody’s been sticking their defunct satellites since it sank in that leaving them in working orbits wasn’t a good plan. There’s a lot of hardware in most of the graveyard-orbit zones, and though they’re well away from the working orbits that doesn’t really matter once you get a Kessler syndrome started and scrap metal starts spalling in all directions at twenty thousand miles an hour. That was basically what was happening; a defunct weather satellite had taken a stray chunk of the Progresso IV right in the belly, and it had just enough fuel for its maneuvering thrusters left in the tanks to blow up. A couple of amateur astronomers spotted the flash, and the astronomy people at the University of Toledo announced that they’d given up trying to calculate where all the shrapnel was going; at this point, a professor said, it was just a matter of time before the whole midrange was shut down as completely as low earth orbit.
That was big news, not least because the assault drones I’d watched people potshotting out of the air depend on satellite links.  Oh, there are other ways to go about controlling them, but they’re clumsy compared to satellite, and you’ve also got the risk that somebody will take out your drones by blocking your signals—that’s happened more than once in the last couple of decades, and I’ll let you imagine what the results were for the side that suddenly lost its drones. Of course that wasn’t the only thing that was in trouble: telecommunications, weather forecasting, military reconnaissance, you name it, with the low orbits gone and the geosynchronous going, the midrange orbits were the only thing left, and now that door was slamming shut one collision at a time.
It occurred to me that the Lakeland Republic was one of the few countries in the world that wasn’t going to be inconvenienced by the worsening of the satellite crisis. Still, I told myself, that’s a special case, and paged further back. The rest of the first section was ordinary news: the Chinese were trying to broker a ceasefire between the warring factions in California; the prime minister of Québec had left on a state visit to Europe; the melting season in Antarctica had gotten off to a very bad start, with a big new iceflow from Marie Byrd Land dumping bergs way too fast. I shook my head, read on.
Further in was the arts and entertainment section. I flipped through that, and in there among the plays and music gigs and schedules for the local radio programs was something that caught my eye and then made me mutter something impolite under my breath. The Lakeland National Opera was about to premier its new production of Parsifal the following week, and every performance was sold out. Sure, I mostly listen to classic jazz, but I have a soft spot for opera from way back—my grandmother was a fan and used to play CDs of her favorite operas all the time, and it would have been worth an evening to check it out. No such luck, though: from the article, I gathered that even the scalpers had run out of tickets. I turned the page.
I finished the paper maybe fifteen minutes before the train pulled into the Toledo station. A horsedrawn taxi took me back to my hotel; I spent a while reviewing my notes, got dinner, and made an early night of it, since I had plans the next morning.
At nine-thirty sharp—I’d checked the streetcar schedule with the concierge—I left the hotel and caught the same streetcar line I’d taken to the Mikkelson plant. This time I wasn’t going anything like so far: a dozen blocks, just far enough to get out of the retail district. I hit the bell just before the streetcar got to the Capitol Atheist Assembly.
Half a dozen other people got off the streetcar with me, and as soon as we figured out that we were all going the same place, the usual friendly noises followed. We filed in through a pleasant lobby that had the usual pictures of famous Atheists on the walls, and then into the main hall, where someone up front was doing a better than usual job with a Bach fugue on the piano, while members and guests of the Assembly milled around, greeted friends, and settled into their seats. Michael Finch, who’d told me about the Assembly, was there already—he excused himself from a conversation, came over and greeted me effusively—and when I finally got someplace where I could see the pianist, it turned out to be Sam Capoferro, the kid I’d seen playing at the hotel restaurant my first day in town. He gave me a grin, kept on playing Bach.
We all got seated eventually. What followed was the same sort of Sunday service you’d get in any other Atheist Assembly in North America: the Litany, the lighting of the symbolic Lamp of Reason, and a couple of songs from the choir, backed by Capoferro’s lively piano playing. There was a reading from one of Mark Twain’s pieces on religion, followed by an entertaining talk on Twain himself—his birthday was coming up soon, I thought I remembered. Then we all stood and sang “Imagine,” and headed for coffee and cookies in the social hall downstairs.
“Anything like what you get at the Philadelphia Assembly?” Finch asked me as we sat at one of the big tables in the social hall.
“The music’s a bit livelier,” I said, “and the talk was frankly more interesting than we usually get in Philly. Other than that, pretty familiar.”
“That’s good to hear,” said a brown-skinned guy about my age, who was just then settling into a chair on the other side of the table. “Even with the borders open, we don’t have anything like the sort of contacts with Assemblies elsewhere that I’d like.”
“Mr. Carr,” Finch said, “this is Rajiv Mohandas—he’s on the administrative council here. Rajiv, this is Peter Carr, who I told you about.”
We shook hands, and Mohandas gave me a broad smile. “Michael tells me that you were out at the annual drone shoot Friday. That must have been quite an experience.”
“In several senses of the word,” I said, and he laughed.
We got to talking, about Assembly doings there in Toledo and back home in Philadelphia, and a couple of other people joined in. None of it was anything out of the ordinary until somebody, I forget who, mentioned in passing the Assembly’s annual property tax bill.”
“Hold it,” I said. “You have to pay property taxes?” They nodded, and I went on:  “Do you have trouble getting Assemblies recognized as churches, or something?”
“No, not at all,”  Mohandas said. “Are churches still tax-exempt in the Atlantic Republic? Here, they’re not.”
That startled me. “Seriously?”
Mohandas nodded, and an old woman with white hair and gold-rimmed glasses, a little further down the table, said, “Mr. Carr, are you familiar with the controversy over the separation of church and state back in the old Union?”
“More or less,” I said. “It’s still a live issue back home.”
She nodded. “The way we see it, it simply didn’t work out, because the churches weren’t willing to stay on their side of the line. They were perfectly willing to take the tax exemption and all, and then turned around and tried to tell the government what to do.”
“True enough,” Mohandas said. “Didn’t matter whether they were on the left or the right, politically speaking.  Every religious organization in the old United States seemed to think that the separation of church and state meant it had the right to use the political system to push its own agendas—”
“—but skies above help you if you asked any of them to help cover the costs of the system they were so eager to use,” said the old woman.
“So the Lakeland Republic doesn’t have the separation of church and state?” I asked.
“Depends on what you mean by that,” the old woman said. “The constitution grants absolute freedom of belief to every citizen, forbids the enactment of any law that privileges any form of religious belief or unbelief over any other, and bars the national government from spending tax money for religious purposes. There’s plenty of legislation and case law backing that up, too. But we treat creedal associations—”
I must have given her quite the blank look over that phrase, because she laughed. “I know, it sounds silly. We must have spent six months in committee arguing back and forth over what phrase we could use that would include churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, assemblies, and every other kind of religious and quasireligious body you care to think of. That was the best we could do.”
“Mr. Carr,” Finch said, “I should probably introduce you. This is Senator Mary Chenkin.”
The old woman snorted. “‘Mary’ is quite good enough,” she said.
I’d gotten most of the way around to recognizing her before Finch spoke. I’d read about Mary Chenkin in briefing papers I’d been given before this trip. She’d been a major player in Lakeland Republic politics since Partition, a delegate to their constitutional convention, a presence in both houses of the legislature, and then the third President of the Republic.  As for “Senator,” I recalled that all their ex-presidents became at-large members of the upper house and kept the position until they died. “Very pleased to meet you,” I said. “You were saying about creedal associations.”
“Just that for legal purposes, they’re like any other association. They pay taxes, they’re subject to all the usual health and safety regulations, their spokespeople are legally accountable if they incite others to commit crimes—”
“Is that an issue?” I asked.
“Not for a good many years,” Chenkin said. “There were a few cases early on—you probably know that some religious groups before the Second Civil War used to preach violence against people they didn’t like, and then hide behind freedom-of-religion arguments to duck responsibility when their followers took them at their word and did something appalling. They couldn’t have gotten away with it if they hadn’t been behind a pulpit—advocating the commission of a crime isn’t protected free speech by anyone’s definition—and they can’t get away with it here at all. Once that sank in, things got a good deal more civil.”
That made sense. “How’s the Assembly doing financially, though, with taxes to pay?”
“Oh, not badly at all,” said Mohandas. “We rent out the hall and the smaller meeting rooms quite a bit, of course, and this room—” He gestured around us.  “—is a school lunchroom six days a week.” In response to my questioning look:  “Yes, we have a school—a lot of,” he grinned, “creedal associations do. Our curriculum’s very strong on science and math, as you can imagine, strong enough that we get students from five and six counties away.”
“That’s impressive,” I said. “I visited a school out in Defiance County yesterday; it was—well, interesting is probably the right word.”
“Well, then, you’ve got to come tour ours,” Chenkin said. “I promise you, there’s no spectator sport in the world that matches watching a class full of fourth-graders tearing into an essay that’s been deliberately packed full of logical fallacies.”
That got a general laugh, which I joined. “I bet,” I said. “Okay, you’ve sold me. I’ll have to see what my schedule has lined up over the next few days, but I’ll certainly put a tour here on the list.”
“Delighted to hear it,” Mohandas said.
I wrote a note to myself in my pocket notebook. All the while, though, I was thinking about the future of the Lakeland Republic. Unless the science and math they taught was as antique as everything else in the Republic, how would the kids who graduated from the Assembly school—and equivalent schools in other cities, I guessed—handle being deprived of the kinds of technology bright, science-minded kids everywhere else took for granted?
***********
While we’re on the subject of narrative fiction, Conan the Cimmerian, Robert E. Howard’s archetypal barbarian hero, has made more than one previous appearance on this blog. With that in mind I’d like to point interested readers in the direction of one of Conan’s more wryly amusing modern manifestations. By Crom! by cartoonist Rachel Kahn features the guy from Cimmeria offering helpful advice for modern urban life. Those who find that thought appealing might consider visiting the publisher’s website here to read the online version or buy PDF copies of the two By Crom! books; those who want printed copies can find the Kickstarter for that project here.

Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment

Wed, 2016-01-20 18:00
Of all the predictions I made for the new year in my post two weeks ago, the one that seems to have stirred up the most distress and derision is my suggestion that the most likely person to be standing up there with his hand on a Bible next January, taking the oath of office as the next president of the United States, is Donald Trump. That prediction wasn’t made to annoy people, entertaining as that can be from time to time; nor is it merely a reaction to Trump’s meteoric rise in the polls and the abject failure of any of his forgettable Republican rivals even to slow him down.
The rise of Donald Trump, rather, marks the arrival of a turning point I’ve discussed more than once in these essays already. Like the other turning points whose impending appearance on the stage of the future has been outlined here, it’s not the end of the world; it’s thus a source of amusement to me to recall all those Republicans who insisted they were going to flee the country if Obama won reelection, and are still here, when I hear Democrats saying they’ll do the same thing if Trump wins. Still, there’s a difference of some importance between the two, because in terms of the historical trajectory of the United States, Trump is a far more significant figure than Barack Obama will ever be.
Despite the empty rhetoric about hope and change that surrounded his 2008 campaign, after all, Obama continued the policies of his predecessor George W. Bush so unswervingly that we may as well call those policies—the conventional wisdom or, rather, the conventional folly of early 21st-century American politics—the Dubyobama consensus. Trump’s candidacy, and in some ways that of his Democratic rival Bernard Sanders as well, marks the point at which the blowback from those policies has become a massive political fact. That this blowback isn’t taking the form desired by many people on the leftward end of things is hardly surprising; it was never going to do so, because the things about the Dubyobama consensus that made blowback inevitable are not the things to which the left objects.
To understand what follows, it’s going to be necessary to ask my readers—especially, though not only, those who consider themselves liberals, or see themselves inhabiting some other position left of center in the convoluted landscape of today’s American politics—to set aside two common habits. The first is the reflexive resort to sneering mockery that so often makes up for the absence of meaningful political thought in the US—again, especially but by no means only on the left. The dreary insults that have been flung so repetitively at Donald Trump over the course of his campaign are fine examples of the species: “deranged Cheeto,” “tomato-headed moron,” “delusional cheese creature,” and so on.
The centerpiece of most of these insults, when they’re not simply petulant schoolboy taunts aimed at Trump’s physical appearance, is the claim that he’s stupid. This is hardly surprising, as a lot of people on the leftward end of American culture love to use the kind of demeaning language that attributes idiocy to those who disagree with them. Thus it probably needs to be pointed out here that Trump is anything but stupid. He’s extraordinarily clever, and one measure of his cleverness is the way that he’s been able to lure so many of his opponents into behaving in ways that strengthen his appeal to the voters that matter most to his campaign. In case you’re wondering if you belong to that latter category, dear reader, if you like to send out tweets comparing Trump’s hair to Cheese Whiz, no, you’re not.
So that’s the first thing that has to be set aside to make sense of the Trump phenomenon. The second is going to be rather more challenging for many of my readers: the notion that the only divisions in American society that matter are those that have some basis in biology. Skin color, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability—these are the lines of division in society that Americans like to talk about, whatever their attitudes to the people who fall on one side or another of those lines. (Please note, by the way, the four words above: “some basis in biology.” I’m not saying that these categories are purely biological in nature; every one of them is defined in practice by a galaxy of cultural constructs and presuppositions, and the link to biology is an ostensive category marker rather than a definition. I insert this caveat because I’ve noticed that a great many people go out of their way to misunderstand the point I’m trying to make here.)
Are the lines of division just named important? Of course they are. Discriminatory treatment on the basis of those factors is a pervasive presence in American life today. The facts remain that there are other lines of division in American society that lack that anchor in biology, that some of these are at least as pervasive in American life as those listed above—and that some of the most important of these are taboo topics, subjects that most people in the US today will not talk about.
Here’s a relevant example. It so happens that you can determine a huge amount about the economic and social prospects of people in America today by asking one remarkably simple question: how do they get most of their income? Broadly speaking—there are exceptions, which I’ll get to in a moment—it’s from one of four sources: returns on investment, a monthly salary, an hourly wage, or a government welfare check. People who get most of their income from one of those four things have a great many interests in common, so much so that it’s meaningful to speak of the American people as divided into an investment class, a salary class, a wage class, and a welfare class.
It’s probably necessary to point out explicitly here that these classes aren’t identical to the divisions that Americans like to talk about. That is, there are plenty of people with light-colored skin in the welfare class, and plenty of people with darker skin in the wage class.  Things tend to become a good deal more lily-white in the two wealthier classes, though even there you do find people of color. In the same way, women, gay people, disabled people, and so on are found in all four classes, and how they’re treated depends a great deal on which of these classes they’re in. If you’re a disabled person, for example, your chances of getting meaningful accommodations to help you deal with your disability are by and large considerably higher if you bring home a salary than they are if you work for a wage.
As noted above, there are people who don’t fall into those divisions. I’m one of them; as a writer, I get most of my income from royalties on book sales, which means that a dollar or so from every book of mine that sells via most channels, and rather less than that if it’s sold by Amazon—those big discounts come straight out of your favorite authors’ pockets—gets mailed to me twice a year. There are so few people who make their living this way that the royalty classlet isn’t a significant factor in American society. The same is true of most of the other ways of making a living in the US today. Even the once-mighty profit class, the people who get their income from the profit they make on their own business activities, is small enough these days that it lacks a significant collective presence.
There’s a vast amount that could be said about the four major classes just outlined, but I want to focus on the political dimension, because that’s where they take on overwhelming relevance as the 2016 presidential campaign lurches on its way. Just as the four classes can be identified by way of a very simple question, the political dynamite that’s driving the blowback mentioned earlier can be seen by way of another simple question: over the last half century or so, how have the four classes fared?
The answer, of course, is that three of the four have remained roughly where they were. The investment class has actually had a bit of a rough time, as many of the investment vehicles that used to provide it with stable incomes—certificates of deposit, government bonds, and so on—have seen interest rates drop through the floor.  Still, alternative investments and frantic government manipulations of stock market prices have allowed most people in the investment class to keep up their accustomed lifestyles.
The salary class, similarly, has maintained its familiar privileges and perks through a half century of convulsive change. Outside of a few coastal urban areas currently in the grip of speculative bubbles, people whose income comes mostly from salaries can generally afford to own their homes, buy new cars every few years, leave town for annual vacations, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, the welfare class has continued to scrape by pretty much as before, dealing with the same bleak realities of grinding poverty, intrusive government bureacracy, and a galaxy of direct and indirect barriers to full participation in the national life, as their equivalents did back in 1966.
And the wage class? Over the last half century, the wage class has been destroyed.
In 1966 an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage could count on having a home, a car, three square meals a day, and the other ordinary necessities of life, with some left over for the occasional luxury. In 2016, an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage is as likely as not to end up living on the street, and a vast number of people who would happily work full time even under those conditions can find only part-time or temporary work when they can find any jobs at all. The catastrophic impoverishment and immiseration of the American wage class is one of the most massive political facts of our time—and it’s also one of the most unmentionable. Next to nobody is willing to talk about it, or even admit that it happened.
The destruction of the wage class was largely accomplished by way of two major shifts in American economic life. The first was the dismantling of the American industrial economy and its replacement by  Third World sweatshops; the second was mass immigration from Third World countries. Both of these measures are ways of driving down wages—not, please note, salaries, returns on investment, or welfare payments—by slashing the number of wage-paying jobs, on the one hand, while boosting the number of people competing for them on the other. Both, in turn, were actively encouraged by government policies and, despite plenty of empty rhetoric on one or the other side of the Congressional aisle, both of them had, for all practical purposes, bipartisan support from the political establishment. 
It’s probably going to be necessary to talk a bit about that last point. Both parties, despite occasional bursts of crocodile tears for American workers and their families, have backed the offshoring of jobs to the hilt. Immigration is a slightly more complex matter; the Democrats claim to be in favor of it, the Republicans now and then claim to oppose it, but what this means in practice is that legal immigration is difficult but illegal immigration is easy. The result was the creation of an immense work force of noncitizens who have no economic or political rights they have any hope of enforcing, which could then be used—and has been used, over and over again—to drive down wages, degrade working conditions, and advance the interests of employers over those of wage-earning employees.
The next point that needs to be discussed here—and it’s the one at which a very large number of my readers are going to balk—is who benefited from the destruction of the American wage class. It’s long been fashionable in what passes for American conservatism to insist that everyone benefits from the changes just outlined, or to claim that if anybody doesn’t, it’s their own fault. It’s been equally popular in what passes for American liberalism to insist that the only people who benefit from those changes are the villainous uber-capitalists who belong to the 1%. Both these are evasions, because the destruction of the wage class has disproportionately benefited one of the four classes I sketched out above: the salary class.
Here’s how that works. Since the 1970s, the salary class lifestyle sketched out above—suburban homeownership, a new car every couple of years, vacations in Mazatlan, and so on—has been an anachronism: in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. It was wholly a product of the global economic dominance the United States wielded in the wake of the Second World War, when every other major industrial nation on the planet had its factories pounded to rubble by the bomber fleets of the warring powers, and the oil wells of Pennsylvania, Texas, and California pumped more oil than the rest of the planet put together.  That dominance went away in a hurry, though, when US conventional petroleum production peaked in 1970, and the factories of Europe and Asia began to outcompete America’s industrial heartland.
The only way for the salary class to maintain its lifestyle in the teeth of those transformations was to force down the cost of goods and services relative to the average buying power of the salary class.  Because the salary class exercised (and still exercises) a degree of economic and political influence disproportionate to its size, this became the order of the day in the 1970s, and it remains the locked-in political consensus in American public life to this day. The destruction of the wage class was only one consequence of that project—the spectacular decline in quality of the whole range of manufactured goods for sale in America, and the wholesale gutting of the national infrastructure, are other results—but it’s the consequence that matters in terms of today’s politics.
It’s worth noting, along these same lines, that every remedy that’s been offered to the wage class by the salary class has benefited the salary class at the expense of the wage class. Consider the loud claims of the last couple of decades that people left unemployed by the disappearance of wage-paying jobs could get back on board the bandwagon of prosperity by going to college and getting job training. That didn’t work out well for the people who signed up for the student loans and took the classes—getting job training, after all, isn’t particularly helpful if the jobs for which you’re being trained don’t exist, and so a great many former wage earners finished their college careers with no better job prospects than they had before, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt burdening them into the bargain. For the banks and colleges that pushed the loans and taught the classes, though, these programs were a cash cow of impressive scale, and the people who work for banks and colleges are mostly salary class.
Attempts by people in the wage class to mount any kind of effective challenge to the changes that have gutted their economic prospects and consigned them to a third-rate future have done very little so far. To some extent, that’s a function of the GOP’s sustained effort to lure wage class voters into backing Republican candidates on religious and moral grounds. It’s the mirror image of the ruse that’s been used by the Democratic party on a galaxy of interests on the leftward end of things—granted, the Democrats aren’t doing a thing about the issues that matter most to you, but neither are the Republicans, so you vote for the party that offends you least. Right? Sure, if you want to guarantee that the interests that matter most to you never get addressed at all.
There’s a further barrier, though, and that’s the response of the salary class across the board—left, right, middle, you name it—to any attempt by the wage class to bring up the issues that matter to it. On the rare occasions when this happens in the public sphere, the spokespeople of the wage class get shouted down with a double helping of the sneering mockery I discussed toward the beginning of this post. The same thing happens on a different scale on those occasions when the same thing happens in private. If you doubt this—and you probably do, if you belong to the salary class—try this experiment: get a bunch of your salary class friends together in some casual context and get them talking about ordinary American working guys. What you’ll hear will range from crude caricatures and one-dimensional stereotypes right on up to bona fide hate speech. People in the wage class are aware of this; they’ve heard it all; they’ve been called stupid, ignorant, etc., ad nauseam for failing to agree with whatever bit of self-serving dogma some representative of the salary class tried to push on them.
And that, dear reader, is where Donald Trump comes in.
The man is brilliant. I mean that without the smallest trace of mockery. He’s figured out that the most effective way to get the wage class to rally to his banner is to get himself attacked, with the usual sort of shrill mockery, by the salary class. The man’s worth several billion dollars—do you really think he can’t afford to get the kind of hairstyle that the salary class finds acceptable? Of course he can; he’s deliberately chosen otherwise, because he knows that every time some privileged buffoon in the media or on the internet trots out another round of insults directed at his failure to conform to salary class ideas of fashion, another hundred thousand wage class voters recall the endless sneering putdowns they’ve experienced from the salary class and think, “Trump’s one of us.”
The identical logic governs his deliberate flouting of the current rules of acceptable political discourse. Have you noticed that every time Trump says something that sends the pundits into a swivet, and the media starts trying to convince itself and its listeners that this time he’s gone too far and his campaign will surely collapse in humiliation, his poll numbers go up?  What he’s saying is exactly the sort of thing that you’ll hear people say in working class taverns and bowling alleys when subjects such as illegal immigration and Muslim jihadi terrorism come up for discussion. The shrieks of the media simply confirm, in the minds of the wage class voters to whom his appeal is aimed, that he’s one of them, an ordinary Joe with sensible ideas who’s being dissed by the suits.
Notice also how many of Trump’s unacceptable-to-the-pundits comments have focused with laser precision on the issue of immigration. That’s a well-chosen opening wedge, as cutting off illegal immigration is something that the GOP has claimed to support for a while now. As Trump broadens his lead, in turn, he’s started to talk about the other side of the equation—the offshoring of jobs—as his recent jab at Apple’s overseas sweatshops shows. The mainstream media’s response to that jab does a fine job of proving the case argued above: “If smartphones were made in the US, we’d have to pay more for them!” And of course that’s true: the salary class will have to pay more for its toys if the wage class is going to have decent jobs that pay enough to support a family. That this is unthinkable for so many people in the salary class—that they’re perfectly happy allowing their electronics to be made for starvation wages in an assortment of overseas hellholes, so long as this keeps the price down—may help explain the boiling cauldron of resentment into which Trump is so efficiently tapping.
It’s by no means certain that Trump will ride that resentment straight to the White House, though at this moment it does seem like the most likely outcome. Still, I trust none of my readers are naive enough to think that a Trump defeat will mean the end of the phenomenon that’s lifted him to front runner status in the teeth of everything the political establishment can throw at him. I see the Trump candidacy as a major watershed in American political life, the point at which the wage class—the largest class of American voters, please note—has begun to wake up to its potential power and begin pushing back against the ascendancy of the salary class.
Whether he wins or loses, that pushback is going to be a defining force in American politics for decades to come. Nor is a Trump candidacy anything approaching the worst form that could take. If Trump gets defeated, especially if it’s done by obviously dishonest means, the next leader to take up the cause of the wage class could very well be fond of armbands or, for that matter, of roadside bombs. Once the politics of resentment come into the open, anything can happen—and this is particularly true, it probably needs to be said, when the resentment in question is richly justified by the behavior of many of those against whom it’s directed.

Retrotopia: Learning Lessons

Wed, 2016-01-13 20:16
This is the thirteennth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator finishes up his trip to a tier one county, and starts to notice ways in which the Lakeland Republic has gone neither forwards nor backwards, but off on an angle all its own...
***********It must have been midnight, or close to it, when Pappas and I got back to the New Shaker gathering. The shooting went on until four in the afternoon; during a lull in the gunfire, a little after noon, we got into line outside a big olive-green tent in the middle of things, filed in, and left with glasses of beer and sausages and sauerkraut on big fresh-baked rolls. After the last drone was blown out of the air, people milled around while the judges conferred, and then it was time for trophies to be handed out—Maude Duesenberg, who I’d seen shooting earlier, squeaked out another win by a couple of points over a scruffy-looking kid from the mountain country off east. They shook hands, and he grinned; you could tell he was already thinking about getting ready for next year’s shoot. 
From there it turned into a big party, with plenty of food—somebody spent most of the day roasting a couple of pigs, just for starters—and no shortage of alcohol, either. Pappas and I ended up sipping moonshine around a fire with the guys from the 34th Infantry, who were already talking about what kind of stunt they were going to pull the following year. The ‘shine was pure enough that I’m honestly surprised that the whole lot of us weren’t lifted into the treetops by a sudden explosion, just from the vapors. As it was, I was tipsier than I usually let myself get by the time Pappas and I headed back to the jeep, and he was worse off than I was. Did you know a wheelchair can stagger? Trust me, I’ve seen it.
The next morning came too early, announced by the same overenthusiastic rooster as before. I got myself washed and dressed, and stumbled downstairs, to find Pappas looking as though he’d slept the clock around and was ready for anything. “I’m going to have to get the early train back,” he told me, “but Melanie says you want to see first tier up close, so she found someone to show you around Hicksville—a city councilwoman, I think.”
“If she can show me the nearest barber shop first,” I said, “I’d be happy.”
Pappas pulled out a pocket watch, glanced at it. “There’s one on Main Street,” he told me. “If we go now you’ll have time to take care of that before she shows up.”
That sounded like a good idea to me, so we said our goodbyes to the New Shakers and piled into the jeep for the ride back into town. This time there weren’t more than three or four wagons on the road that had been so crowded two days back; I gathered that most of the attendees were either sleeping off the consequences of the previous night or enjoying a leisurely morning. Fields and pastures eventually gave way to the outlying houses of the town, and then to the main street, which was paved—I hadn’t expected that—and lined on both sides with the sort of shops and city buildings you’d expected to see in an Old West history vid.
“City Hall’s there,” Pappas said as the jeep pulled up in front of the promised barber shop. He pointed to a three-story building of what looked like local stone half a block up the street. “Right next to the library. Ask for Ruth Mellencamp. All set? Hey, it was a pleasure.” We shook hands, I hauled my suitcase out of the jeep, and away it went.
I shook my head and went into the barbershop, and found a half dozen guys ahead of me in line. I’d expected that; what I didn’t expect is that four of them were singing. They had books open in their laps—copies of the same songbook, I gathered after a fast glance—and were belting out some song I didn’t know, and doing it in pretty fair harmony. I sat down in the nearest available chair, tucked my suitcase back under the seat, and all of a sudden had to fight down an impulse to laugh. You can run into a phrase hundreds of times and never think about what it actually means; I must have read at least that many references to “barbershop quartets” without realizing that that’s what guys did in barbershops while waiting for a shave, back in the days when there weren’t loudspeakers in the ceiling blaring pop music everywhere and veepads sitting in everyone’s lap to make up for any lack of distraction. In the Lakeland Republic, obviously, those days were back.
I’m pretty sure that if I’d picked up a copy of the songbook from the table in front and joined in, nobody would have blinked, and in fact that’s what happened with two of the next three guys to come into the barber shop. The odd thing was that the songs weren’t the sort of thing I dimly associated with barbershop quartets. I didn’t know most of them, but then I’ve got pretty specific musical tastes—jazz on the one hand, and opera on the other. Still, they were pretty good. One that stuck in my memory had a rock beat, and something in the chorus about a star man waiting in the sky. I made a note in my notebook to look it up once I got back home and could chase down the lyrics on the metanet.
It was a half hour or so later when I left the barbershop, feeling a lot less scruffy, and with another song’s chorus—“Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes”—ringing in my head. It wasn’t a bad bit of advice for the day I was about to have, for that matter.
There were sidewalks, too, and I walked up the one that led to City Hall, went in, and asked for Ruth Mellencamp. She turned out to be short, plump, gray-haired, and businesslike, the kind of woman that looks like somebody’s slightly batty granny until she starts talking and you realize there’s a mind like a steel trap behind the cozy facade. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, shaking my hand. “Yes, Ms. Berger called down from Toledo two days ago. It’s not often we get visitors from outside here in Hicksville, and I admit I’m curious to see what you’ll think of our little town.”
“So far,” I said, “I know that it has decent train service and you can get an excellent shave here.”
She chuckled. “Well, that’s certainly a good start! Why don’t you stash your suitcase here and we can have a look at the town.”
“I was a little surprised to see paved streets and sidewalks here,” I said as we left the building. “I thought you didn’t have those in a first tier county.”
“They weren’t paid for with tax money,” she said. “About ten years ago, some of the business people in town got together, organized a corporation, got a charter from the legislature for it, and used that to raise money to pave six streets downtown. A lot of people contributed, and not just people who live in town. So the streets got built, a fund was set aside to repair them, and the corporation wound up its affairs and closed down.”
“I imagine you know,” I said, “just how odd that sounds to someone from outside.”
“Of course.” She gestured down the street, and we turned. “The thing is, that’s what corporations were originally:  schemes for public betterment that were chartered by one of the old state governments for a fixed term, and allowed to raise money by stock sales for that reason alone. It wasn’t until clever lawyers twisted the laws out of shape that corporations got turned into imaginary persons with more rights and fewer responsibilities than the rest of us.”
I remembered what Vinny Patzek told me about corporations at the Toledo stock market. “So you went back to the older way of doing things.”
“Exactly. We do that a lot here.”
“I’ve gotten that impression,” I said dryly, and she chuckled again.
Hicksville was a farm town’s farm town, and you could tell. The biggest store in town was a feed-and-seed with big silos out back, next to a rail siding where freight cars could pull up to take on loads of grain, and the next biggest business was a whiskey distillery—“you won’t find a better bourbon in the Republic,” Mellencamp told me—which also had its own rail siding, and a loading dock stacked with cases of bottles ready to ship. Thinking about the tier system when I was in Toledo, I’d conjured up a picture of log cabins, dirt roads, and the kind of squalor you get in the poorer rural districts of the Atlantic Republic these days, but that’s not what I saw all around me in Hicksville. What I saw instead was a bustling, tolerably prosperous community that somehow got by without the technologies everyone outside took for granted.
We stopped in front of another big building of local stone, with HICKSVILLE SCHOOL carved over the door. “I don’t know whether you’re interested at all in our education system,” Mellencamp said.
“Actually, I am,” I told her. “Ours has problems; maybe I can pick up some useful ideas.” It was half a joke and half the understatement of the year—the public schools all over the Atlantic Republic are a disaster area, and the private schools charge more and more each year for an education that isn’t all that much better.
She beamed. “Maybe you can. We’re very proud of our school here.”
We went inside. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that there were no armed guards in flak jackets standing in the halls—I’d seen none of those elsewhere in the Republic—but it still rattled me. The place was clean and pleasant, without the prison look schools have back home. We went to the office, a little cubbyhole in front with a desk for the secretary and a bunch of filing cabinets, and Ellencamp introduced me; the secretary had me sign in, said something pleasant, and away we went.
“People come here all the time,” Mellencamp explained. “People moving to the area who want to check out our schools, parents and grandparents who have free time and want to volunteer, that sort of thing. It’s very much part of the community.”
There were eight classrooms, one for each of the eight grades taught there. We slipped into the back of the second grade classroom, nodded a greeting to the teacher, and sat in wooden chairs up against the back wall. The room was about as plain as could be, a simple square space with a blackboard and a teacher’s chair and desk up in front, a round clock over the door, four big windows letting in light on the left, a teacher’s desk and chair up front, and rows of seats for the students, each with its little half-desk curving forward from one arm. The teacher was maybe thirty, brown-skinned, with her hair in a flurry of braids tied back loosely behind her neck. A blonde girl of sixteen or so was standing next to the desk, reading a simple story aloud, and the students were following along in their textbooks.
I leaned over to Mellencamp. “Who’s she?” I whispered, meaning the girl who was reading.
“An apprentice,” she whispered back, and motioned to a boy around the same age, brown-haired and red-cheeked, who was going from student to student, and now and then squatting down and murmuring something or pointing to some bit in the book. “So’s that one.”
I gave her a startled look, but decided not to risk interrupting.
The story wound to an end, and then the teacher started asking questions about it to one student after another—not the kind of simple you’d expect to see in a test back home, either. It sank in after a moment that she was actually asking the kids for their thoughts about this or that part of the story. I put my hand on my chin. It struck me as a very odd way to run a lesson—wasn’t the point of schooling to make sure that everyone in the class came up with the right answer when it was called for? Not in the Lakeland Republic, I gathered.
The reading lesson ended at ten-thirty sharp—it took me a while to remember how to read a clock with hands, but I managed it—and once it was over, the students and both apprentices got up and trooped out the door in a ragged but tolerably well behaved line. Ruth Mellencamp got to her feet once the last of them were gone, gestured for me to follow, and went to the front of the room. “Angie,” she said, “this is Peter Carr, who’s visiting from outside. Mr. Carr, Angela McClintock.”
We shook hands, said the usual polite things. “How long do you have before the next class?” I asked.
The teacher gave me a blank look, then smiled the you-don’t-get-it smile I’d seen too often for my liking already. “They’ll be back in fifteen minutes, after morning recess.” It was my turn to wear a blank look, and her eyebrows went up. “Good heavens, you can’t expect second graders to sit still for an entire school day. Don’t the early grades have recesses where you’re from?”
“We probably should,” I allowed.
“You certainly should. If I kept them in much longer they’d be so restless wouldn’t absorb a thing I taught them. This way, fifteen minutes from now they’ll be ready to sit back down and pay attention to the next set of lessons.”
I nodded. “I was curious about the two young people who were helping you—apprentices?.” She nodded, beaming, and I went on: “They look a little young to have gotten a teaching degree already—will they go to college and get that after their apprenticeship?”
That got me the blank look again, and this time it wasn’t followed by the too-familiar smile. Ruth Mellencamp came to the rescue. “They used to send teachers to college before the war,” she said. “I gather they still do that outside.”
“And I gather you don’t do that here,” I said.
“Good heavens, no,” said the teacher. “Why would we? You don’t need a college degree to teach second graders how to read—just patience and a little bit of practice.”
“But I’m sure you teach them more than reading,” I objected.
“Yes, but the same thing’s true of all the three C’s,” she said.
“That’s what we call the curriculum,” Mellencamp added, seeing the blank look start to appear on my face. “Literacy, numeracy, naturacy—we call those the three C’s.”
I took that in. “So you teach them to read, and then—mathematics?”
“Literacy’s more than just reading,” McClintock said. “It’s the whole set of language skills—reading, grammar, spelling, logical reasoning, composition and speaking, so they can learn whatever interests them, think intelligently about it, and share what they find with other people. Numeracy’s the whole set of number skills—mathematics, sure, but also the trick of putting things in numerical terms and using math in the real world, so probability, statistics, everything you need to keep from being fooled or flummoxed by numbers.”
“Okay,” I said. “And—naturacy? I don’t even know the word.”
“The same principle,” said the teacher. “The whole set of natural science skills: learning how to observe, how to compare your observations to what’s already known or thought to be known, how to come up with hypotheses and figure out ways to test them—and also natural history, what living things you found here, how they interact with us, with their habitats, with other living things.”
“I suppose you don’t teach that in the schools back home,” said Mellencamp.
“There are college classes,” I said.
“Most of these kids will grow up to be farmers,” McClintock told me. “Most of those that don’t will be dealing with farmers and the farm economy here every day of their lives. How on Earth will they know how to do that if they don’t understand soil and weather and how plants grow?”
“Back before the war,” Mellencamp reminded her, “corporate farmers tried to do without that .”
“Yes, and look what happened.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure we’ve learned everything we should have from the mistakes that were made back then, but that’s one I think we got.”
I thought about that on the train that afternoon all the way back to Toledo.
**************

In other fiction-related news, I’m delighted to announce that the first volume of my Lovecraftian epic fantasy The Weird of Hali is now available for preorder. The publisher, Miskatonic Books, is sensibly enough releasing the high-end hardback editions first. Those of my readers who are interested in a signed limited edition hardback of The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth can preorder it here; those who want to go way over the top and order one of 26 copies of the fine edition, handsewn, traycased, and bound in the skins of beasts better left unnamed, can order it here. Beyond the wholesome attractions of writhing tentacles and eldritch horrors from three weeks before the dawn of time, this novel and its sequels deal with a good many of the core themes of The Archdruid Report, and should be of interest to many readers of this blog.

Down the Ratholes of the Future

Wed, 2016-01-06 18:47
The new year now upon us has brought out the usual quota of predictions about what 2016 has in store, and I propose as usual to make my own contribution to that theme.  I’ve noted more than once in the past that people who make predictions about the future really ought to glance back at those predictions from time to time and check how well they’re doing. With that in mind, before we go on to 2016, I’d like to take a moment to look back over the predictions I made last year.  My post on the subject covered a lot of territory in the course of offering those predictions, and I’ve trimmed down the discussion a bit here for the sake of readability; those who want to read the whole thing as originally published will find it here. In summarized form, though, this is what I predicted:

“The first and most obvious [thing to expect] is the headlong collapse of the fracking bubble [...] Wall Street has been using the fracking industry in all the same ways it used the real estate industry in the runup to the 2008 crash, churning out what we still laughably call “securities” on the back of a rapidly inflating speculative bubble. As the slumping price of oil kicks the props out from under the fracking boom, the vast majority of that paper—the junk bonds issued by fracking-industry firms, the securitized loans those same firms used to make up for the fact that they lost money every single quarter, the chopped and packaged shale leases, the volumetric production agreements, and all the rest of it—will revert to its actual value, which in most cases approximates pretty closely to zero.
“Thus one of the entertainments 2015 has in store for us is a thumping economic crisis here in the US, and in every other country that depends on our economy for its bread and butter. The scale of the crash depends on how many people bet how much of their financial future on the fantasy of an endless frack-propelled boom, but my guess is it’ll be somewhere around the scale of the 2008 real estate bust.
“Something else that’s baked into the baby new year’s birthday cake at this point is a rising spiral of political unrest here in the United States. [...] Will an American insurgency funded by one or more hostile foreign powers get under way in 2015? I don’t think so, though I’m prepared to be wrong. More likely, I think, is another year of rising tensions, political gridlock, scattered gunfire, and rhetoric heated to the point of incandescence, while the various players in the game get into position for actual conflict:  the sort of thing the United States last saw in the second half of the 1850s, as sectional tensions built toward the bloody opening rounds of the Civil War.  [...]
“Meanwhile, back behind these foreground events, the broader trends this blog has been tracking since its outset are moving relentlessly on their own trajectories. The world’s finite supplies of petroleum, along with most other resources on which industrial civilization depends for survival, are depleting further with each day that passes; the ecological consequences of treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer for the output of our tailpipes and smokestacks, along with all the other frankly brainless ways our civilization maltreats the biosphere that sustains us all, builds apace; caught between these two jaws of a tightening vise, industrial civilization has entered the rising spiral of crisis about which so many environmental scientists tried to warn the world back in the 1970s, and only a very small minority of people out on the fringes of our collective discourse has shown the least willingness to recognize the mess we’re in and start changing their own lives in response: the foundation, it bears repeating, of any constructive response to the crisis of our era.”
What I missed, and should have anticipated, is the extent to which the failure of the fracking fantasy has been hushed up by the mainstream US media. I should have anticipated that, too, because the same thing happened with the last energy boom that was going to save us all, the corn ethanol bubble that inflated so dramatically a decade ago and crumpled not long thereafter. Plenty of firms in the fracking industry have gone bankrupt, the junk bonds that propped up the industry are selling for pennies on the dollar to anyone willing to gamble on them, and all those grand claims that fracking was going to bring a new era of US energy independence have been quietly roundfiled next to the identical claims made for ethanol not that many years before; still, this hasn’t yielded the sudden shock I expected.
The ripple effect on the US economy has been slower than I anticipated, too.  Thus, instead of the thumping economic crisis I predicted, we’ve seen a slow grinding contraction, papered over by the usual frantic maneuvers on the part of the Fed. In effect, instead of popping, the fracking bubble sprang a slow leak, which has played out in a muffled drumbeat of worsening economic news rather than a sudden plunge. So I missed on that one. The rest of the year’s predictions? Once again, I called it.
Now of course, as my critics like to point out, it’s easy to look at everything that’s getting worse each year, and predict that all those things are just going to keep getting worse in the year to come. What those same critics tend to forget is that this strategy may be easy but, unlike the alternatives, it works. Every January, with a predictability that puts clockwork to shame, people trot out the same shopworn predictions of game-changing breakthroughs and game-over catastrophes; one blogger announces that this will be the year that renewable energy reaches critical mass, while another insists with equal enthusiasm that this will be the year when the wheels come off the global economy once and for all; another year passes, the breakthroughs and the catastrophes pull a no-show yet again, and here we are, 365 days further down the long ragged trajectory that leads to the end of the industrial age.
Thus my core prediction for 2016 is that all the things that got worse in 2015 will keep on getting worse over the year to come. The ongoing depletion of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources will keep squeezing the global economy, as the real (i.e., nonfinancial) costs of resource extraction eat up more and more of the world’s total economic output, and this will drive drastic swings in the price of energy and commodities—currently those are still headed down, but they’ll soar again in a few years as demand destruction completes its work. The empty words in Paris a few weeks ago will do nothing to slow the rate at which greenhouse gases are dumped into the atmosphere, raising the economic and human cost of climate-related disasters above 2015’s ghastly totals—and once again, the hard fact that leaving carbon in the ground means giving up the lifestyles that depend on digging it up and burning it is not something that more than a few people will be willing to face.
Meanwhile, the US economy will continue to sputter and stumble as politicians and financiers try to make up for ongoing declines in real (i.e., nonfinancial) wealth by manufacturing paper wealth at an even more preposterous pace than before, and frantic jerryrigging will keep the stock market from reflecting the actual, increasingly dismal state of the economy.  We’re already in a steep economic downturn, and it’s going to get worse over the year to come, but you won’t find out about that from the mainstream media, which will be full of the usual fact-free cheerleading; you’ll have to watch the rates at which the people you know are being laid off and businesses are shutting their doors instead. 
All that’s a slam-dunk at this point. Still, for those readers who want to see me taking on a little more predictive risk, I have something to offer. There’s a wild card in play in the US economy just now, and it’s the tech sector—no, let’s call things by less evasive names, shall we?  The current tech bubble. My financially savvy readers will know that a standard way to compare a company’s notional value to its real prospects is the ratio of the total price of all its stock to its annual earnings—the price/earnings or P/E ratio for short. Healthy companies in a normal economy usually have P/E ratios between 10 and 20; that is, their total stock value is between ten and twenty times their annual earnings.  Care to guess what the P/E ratio is for Amazon as of last Friday’s close? A jawdropping 985.
At that, Amazon is in better shape than some other big-name tech firms these days, as it actually has earnings. Twitter, for example, has never gotten around to making a profit at all, and so its P/E ratio is its current absurd stock value divided by zero. Valuations this detached from reality haven’t been seen since immediately before the “Tech Wreck” of 2000, and the reason is exactly the same: vast amounts of easy money have flooded into the tech sector, and that torrent of cash has propped up an assortment of schemes and scams that make no economic sense at all. Sooner or later, as a function of the same hard math that brings every bubble to an end, Tech Wreck II is going to hit, vast amounts of money are going to evaporate, and a lot of currently famous tech companies are going to go the way of Pets.com.
Exactly when that will happen is a good question, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the next tech bust will be under way by the end of 2016. That’s specific prediction #1.
Another aspect of economic reality that’s going to hit hard in the year ahead is the ongoing deflation of the fracking bubble. Aside from the straightforward financial impact of that deflation, the failure of fracking to live up to the cornucopian fantasies piled onto it means that a lot of people who relied on it as a way of ignoring the harsh realities of planetary limits are going to have to find something else, so they can have new excuses for living the lifestyles that are wrecking the planet. There’s no shortage of candidates just now; no doubt billions of dollars, Euros, et al. will continue to be poured down the bottomless rathole of fusion research, and the government feed trough will doubtless have plenty of other corporate swine lined up and grunting for their share, but my best guess at this point is that photovoltaic (PV) solar energy is going to be the next big energy bubble.
Solar PV is a good deal less environmentally benign than its promoters like to claim—like so many so-called “green” technologies, the environmental damage it causes happens mostly in the trajectory from mining the raw materials to manufacture and deployment, not in day-to-day operation—and the economics of grid-tied solar power are so dubious that in practice, grid-tied PV is a subsidy dumpster rather than a serious energy source. Nonetheless, I expect to see such points brushed aside, airily or angrily as the case may be, as the solar lobby and its wholly-owned subsidiaries in the green movement make an all-out push to sell solar PV as the next big thing. The same rhetoric deployed to sell ethanol and fracking as game-changing innovations, which of course they weren’t, will be trotted out again for PV, as the empty promises made at the recent COP-21 meeting in Paris find their inevitable destiny as sales pitches for yet another alleged energy miracle that won’t fulfill the overinflated promises made on its behalf.
There’s still some uncertainty involved, but I’m going to predict that the mass marketing of what will inevitably be called “the PV revolution” will get under way in 2016. That’s specific prediction #2.
Meanwhile the political context of American life is heating steadily toward an explosion. As I write this, a heavily armed band of militiamen is holed up in a building on a Federal wildlife refuge in the deserts of southeastern Oregon, trying to provoke a standoff. Clownish as such stunts unquestionably are, it bears remembering that the activities of such violent abolitionists as John Brown looked just as pointless in their time; their importance was purely as a gauge of the pressures building toward civil war—and that’s exactly the same reading I give to the event just described.
That said, I don’t expect an armed insurgency of any scale to break out in the United States this year. The era of rural and urban guerrilla warfare, roadside bombs, internment camps, horrific human rights violations by all sides, and millions of refugees fleeing in all directions, that will bring down the United States of America is still a little while off yet, for one crucial reason: a large enough fraction of the people most likely to launch the insurgencies of the near future have decided to give the political process one last try, and the thing that has induced them to do this is the candidacy of Donald Trump.
The significance of Trump’s astonishing progress to front-runner status is large and complex enough that it’s going to get a post of its own here in the near future. For the moment, the point that matters is that a vast number of nominal Republicans are so sick of the business as usual being marketed by their party’s officially approved candidates that they’re willing to vote for absolutely anyone who is willing to break with the bipartisan consensus of what we might as well call the Dubyobama era: a consensus that has brought misery to the vast majority of Americans, but continues to benefit a privileged minority—not just the much-belabored 1%, but the top 20% or so of Americans by income.
Hillary Clinton is the candidate of that 20%, the choice of those who want things to keep going the way they’ve gone for the last two decades or so. More precisely, she’s the one candidate of the business-as-usual brigade left standing, since the half of the 20% that votes Democrat has rallied around her and done their best to shut down the competition, while the half that votes Republican failed to rally around Jeb Bush or one of his bland and interchangeable rivals, and thus got sidelined when the 80% made their own choice. It’s still possible that Bernie Sanders could pull off an upset, if he trounces Clinton in a couple of early primaries and the Democrat end of the 80% makes its voice heard, but that’s a long shot. Far more likely at this point is an election pitting Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump—and though Sanders could probably beat Trump, Clinton almost certainly can’t.
Granted, there are plenty of twists and turns ahead as America stumbles through its long, unwieldy, and gaudily corrupt election process. It’s possible that the GOP will find some way to keep Trump from gettng the nomination, in which case whoever gets the Republican nod will lose by a landslide as the GOP end of the 80% stays home. It’s possible that given enough election fraud—anyone who thinks this is purely a GOP habit should read Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot, which details how Joe Kennedy bought the 1960 election for his son—Clinton might still squeak through and get into the White House. It’s even possible that Sanders will claw his way over the barriers raised against him by the Democrat establishment and win the race.
At this point, though, little though I like to say this, the most likely outcome of the 2016 election is the inauguration of Donald Trump as President in January 2017. That’s specific prediction #3.
Then there’s the wider context, the international political situation that’s dominated by a fact next to nobody in this country is willing to discuss: the rapid acceleration of America’s imperial decline and fall over the last year. That’s something I’ve been expecting—I discussed it at length in my book Decline and Fall and also in my near-future political-military thriller novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming—but the details came as a surprise, not only to me, but apparently to everyone outside a few tightly guarded office buildings in Moscow. The Russian intervention in Syria has turned out to be one of the few real game-changing events in recent years, shifting the balance of power decisively against the US in a pivotal part of the world and revealing weaknesses that the illusion of US omnipotence has heretofore concealed. As a result, probably though not certainly before 2016 is over, the Daesh jihadi militia—the so-called “Islamic State”—is going to get hammered into irrelevance.
That latter may turn out to be a significant turning point in more ways than one, because the Daesh phenomenon is considerably more complex than the one-dimensional caricature being presented by the US media. The evidence at this point makes it pretty clear that Daesh is being funded and supported by a number of Middle Eastern nations, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia probably the biggest contributors; those iconic white pickup trucks aren’t popping into being in the middle of the Syrian desert by the sheer grace of Allah, after all. It’s also at least suggestive that the US, in a year of supposed air war against Daesh, not only failed to slow it down, but somehow never managed to notice, much less target, the miles-long convoys of tanker trucks hauling oil north to Turkey to cover the costs of jihad.
Something very murky has been going on in the northern Tigris-Euphrates river valley, and it deserves a post of its own here, since it will very likely will play a major role in the decline of American empire and the rise of a new global hegemony under different management. Regular readers may find it helpful to review this blog’s previous discussion of geopolitics, or even find a stray volume of Halford Mackinder and read it, keeping in mind that regions and continents have Pivot Areas of their own. Still, there’s a specific consequence that’s likely to follow from all this.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a fine example of a phemomenon all too familiar to students of history: a crumbling, clueless despotism which never got the memo warning that it couldn’t get away any longer with acting like a major power. The steady decline in the price of oil has left the kingdom in ghastly financial condition, forced to borrow money on international credit markets to pay its bills, while slashing the lavish subsidies that keep its citizens compliant. A prudent ruling class in that position would avoid foreign adventures and cultivate the kind of good relationships with neighboring powers that would give it room to maneuver in a crisis. As so often happens in such cases, though, the rulers of Saudi Arabia are anything but prudent, and they’ve plunged openly into a shooting war just over its southern borders in Yemen, and covertly but massively into the ongoing mess in Syria and Iraq.
The war in Yemen is not going well—Yemeni forces have crossed the Saudi border repeatedly in raids on southern military bases—and the war in Syria and Iraq is turning out even worse. At this point, the kingdom can’t effectively withdraw from either struggle, nor can it win either one; its internal affairs are becoming more and more troubled, and the treasury is running low. It’s a familiar recipe, and one that has an even more familiar outcome: the abrupt collapse of the monarchy, followed by prolonged chaos until one or more new governments consolidate their power. (Those of my readers who know about the collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires at the end of the First World War have a heads-up on tomorrow’s news.) When that happens—and at this point, it’s a matter of when rather than if—the impact on the world’s petroleum markets, investment markets, and politics will be jarring and profound, and almost impossible to predict in detail in advance.
The timing of political collapse is not much easier to predict, but here again, I’m going to plop for a date and say that the Saudi regime will be gone by the end of 2016. That’s specific prediction #4.
I admit quite cheerfully that all four of these predictions may turn out to be dead wrong. That the current tech bubble will pop messily, and that the House of Saud will implode just as messily, are to my mind done deals—in both cases, there’s a reliable historical pattern well under way, which will proceed to its predictable conclusion—but the timing is impossible to know in advance. That something or other will be loudly ballyhooed as the next reason privileged Americans don’t have to change their lifestyles, and that the collision between the policies of the Dubyobama era and the resentment and rage of those who’ve paid the cost of those policies will set US politics ablaze, are just as certain, but it’s impossible to be sure in advance that solar PV and Donald Trump will be the beneficiaries.
The simple reality remains that here in America, we’ve poured nearly all our remaining options for constructive change down the ratholes of the future, and the one option that could still accomplish something—the option of changing our lifestyles now, in order to decrease the burden we place on the planet and what’s left of the industrial economy—is considered unthinkable right across the political spectrum. That being the case, those of us who are doing the unthinkable, while we insulate our homes, sell our cars and other energy-wasting items, learn useful skills, and pursue the other pragmatic steps that matter just now, might want to lay in a good supply of popcorn, too; it’s going to be quite a show.

Retrotopia: Neglected Technologies

Wed, 2015-12-30 15:37
This is the twelfth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator attends the Lakeland Republic's annual drone shoot, and finds out that not all technological innovations start out from the current state of the art...  

***********A rooster yelling at the top of its lungs woke me before dawn the next morning. It didn’t seem likely to shut up any time soon, and I doubted the New Shakers would be happy if I threw things at their livestock, so I got up instead. I rang the bell as I’d been told, and a couple of minutes later, a quiet knock on the door announced the arrival of a middle-aged woman with two pitchers and a bowl. I took them and thanked her; she smiled and curtseyed, and headed off to somewhere else.
I started washing up, and only then realized two things. The first was that there weren’t any outlets for electricity in the room; the second was that the only thing I had to shave with was an electric shaver. I finished washing and got dressed, hoping a day’s growth of beard wouldn’t be a faux pas by Lakeland standards. Maybe half an hour later, I was sitting behind Colonel Pappas in the jeep as it rattled over a dirt road on its way to the Lakeland Republic’s annual drone shoot.
“How much do you know about modern drones?” Pappas had asked me the night before; when I admitted my ignorance, he laughed. “Fair enough. You start talking about drones, a lot of people think of the old first and second generation machines, the ones that used to launch rockets from a mile or so in the air. Those haven’t been in frontline service since the ‘thirties—ever hear of the battle of Mosul?”
I tried to remember. “That was in the second Kurdistan war, wasn’t it?”
“Bingo. Both sides had drones, but the Kurds figured out that you can target them with old-fashioned antiaircraft guns, got a bunch of those in place without anybody being the wiser, and took out most of the Turkish drone force in an afternoon. After that, you had militaries all over the place figuring out ways to target drones, and that’s when the sort of drones you see these days started popping up on the drawing boards—observation drones way up where artillery can’t hit them, and attack drones flying at treetop level where they can hide from radar. Of course then they’ve got other vulnerabilities.”
“Can’t they simply reprogram their attack drones to fly high if they’re going to attack you?”
“Sure.” He grinned. “We’ve got plenty of old-fashioned antiaircraft guns, too.”
So there I was, jolting along a rough road with brown fields of stubble to the left and a line of trees to the right, and a moving dot up above the trees caught my eye. I turned to look; Pappas saw me move, turned in his seat, and handed me a pair of binoculars. Despite the joggling of the jeep, I managed to get the thing in focus: a lean angular shape with broad straight wings, flying low and fast.
As I watched, shards suddenly flew up from the middle of one wing. A moment later the outer half of the wing tumbled one way and the rest of the drone tumbled the other. I managed to follow it most of the way to the trees, then handed the binoculars back to Pappas.
“Wing hit?” he asked, pitching his voice to be heard above the jeep’s engine. I nodded. “That’s the easy one,” he went on. “Good shots aim for the engine or the fuel tank.”
A quarter mile or so on, as another drone came into sight, the road veered suddenly to the right, ducked through the trees, and stopped in an impromptu parking lot where jeeps were more or less lined up. Just past the parking lots was a cluster of olive-drab tents, and past those a fair-sized crowd. Off to the left, though, a bunch of horses were munching grass in a fenced-off field, and as I watched, a dozen or so people in Lakeland Army uniforms rode up on horses, dismounted, and led the animals into the field.
The jeep rolled to a halt. “What’s with that?” I asked Pappas. “Cavalry in this day and age?”
“Nah, dragoons.” He figured out from my face that I didn’t know the word, and went on: “Mounted infantry—they ride to the battlefield and then dismount to fight. Most countries had ‘em until the end of the nineteenth century, and we tried ‘em out in the war of ‘49 with good results. Transport’s a lot less difficult on the logistical end of things if the only fuel you need is hay.”
I got out of the jeep. Pappas hauled himself into his wheelchair, then handed me a pair of earplugs. “You’ll need these,” he said. “Drone rifles use .50 caliber ammo, and that isn’t easy on the ears.”
We wove our way through the tents, through the crowd, and out to the places where the guns were firing. There were maybe two dozen of them in a big arc, each with twenty or so stations for shooters, though things were just getting under way and most of the stations didn’t have anyone at them yet. “Those are first timers doing their qualifying rounds,” Pappas said, pointing to one set of stations filling up quicker than the others; the earplugs muffled his voice but I could still hear him. “Over here, the expert marksmen—you’ll see some of the best shots in the Republic here today. Check this one out.”
“This one” was a short middle-aged woman in jeans and a buffalo plaid wool shirt, cradling a rifle that must have been as long as she was tall. Past her, I could see a dot against the morning sky. She lined up the shot with practiced ease. Even through the earplugs, the crack of the rifle was loud enough to sting.
A moment later, off in the distance, the dot vanished in a little red-orange flash.
“Sweet,” Pappas said. “Right in the fuel tank. That’s Maude Duesenberg—I honestly don’t remember how many drone shoot trophies she’s got on her mantle, but it’s got to be getting crowded.”
“Where do you get all the drones?” I asked him.
“Oh, most of ‘em we make ourselves. Expert class and proof-of-concept shooters get real drones—we buy them through traders in Chicago. You probably don’t want to know how many officers in how many countries sell us a drone or two every year, list ‘em as crashed, and pocket the proceeds.”
I knew enough about the military back home to guess that the Atlantic Republic was on that list. Still, something else had sparked my curiosity. “What’s proof of concept shooting?”
“New or revived technologies. They’re over on this side—let’s check ‘em out.”
Instead of the shooter’s stations elsewhere on the arc, the place for proof-of-concept shooters was an open patch of mostly flattened grass with a long straight view ahead of it. There wasn’t much of a crowd there, just a couple of officers in the ubiquitous Lakeland trench coats, and several dozen kids watching with hopeful looks on their faces. Out on the grass were maybe twenty soldiers who looked even scruffier than I felt, manhandling what looked like a cannon on an oddly shaped mount.
“Oh my God,” Pappas said. “I know these guys—the 34th Infantry from Covington. I wonder what they’re up to; that can’t be an ordinary howitzer.”
I gave him a startled look. One of the officers standing there laughed, and said, “Good morning, sir. Yeah, Carlos and I have been wondering about that since they started setting the thing up.”
Introductions followed; Michael Berconi and Carlos Lopez Ruiz were captains in the Lakeland Army, down from Toledo to watch the proof-of-concept tests. “You probably don’t know about the 34th,” Lopez said to me. “They’re a bunch of maniacs. Every year they come up with some new stunt.”
“That’s for sure,” said Berconi. “You should have been here last year. We were standing here, and all of a sudden a bright red triplane—you know, like the Red Baron’s plane—comes over the trees there and starts jumping drones from above. I heard later they spent two years building the damn thing.”
“I’m surprised the drones didn’t dodge it,” I said.
“They couldn’t see it,” Pappas told me. “Military frequency radar won’t see wood and fabric, and military drones only have video looking forward and down—though I understand that’s being changed. You’re not the only visitor from outside at these events.” He grinned, though there was an edge to it. “Though most of the others don’t announce themselves.”
The soldiers out on the open grass had finished setting up their cannon, and one of them spread his arms in what was pretty obviously a signal. “Here goes,” Pappas said. “You may want to put your hands over your ears; a 75-mm howitzer makes more noise than your earplugs’ll handle.”
I covered my ears. Off in the distance, a dot rose up into the air and came toward us in a zigzag pattern. About the time it got close enough that I could see more of it than a dot, the cannon went off, and Pappas wasn’t kidding; even with my hands over my ears, it packed a wallop. Something blurred the air downrange from where we stood; an instant passed, and then the drone shattered as though it had slammed into an unseen wall. The watching kids whooped; so did the soldiers, and then reloaded.
“What the ringtailed rambling—” Pappas began to say, then covered his ears; he’d spotted the next drone a moment after I had. The same process repeated, except that the second drone only lost half of one wing; that was enough to send it tumbling down onto the range, but the chief of the gun crew regaled the others with a string of profanity that would have gotten a standing ovation from Marines. Then it was hands-over-ears time; they let the final drone get good and close before firing, and so I got a fine view as something slammed into it and sent the fragments  tumbling down to the grass below.
Before the soldiers had finished whooping Pappas wheeled out toward them, shouting, “What the hell are you maniacs putting in that thing?” He was apparently no stranger to the 34th Infantry; they greeted him with sloppy salutes and big grins, and the crew chief and one of the others stood talking with him while the others started breaking the cannon down for transport.
A woman’s voice sounded behind me:  “Excuse me, is this the place for proof-of-concept tests?”
I turned around. She was a twenty-something blonde in a big brown barn coat. “Yes,” I said. “They’re just packing up from the last test.”
“Oh, good.” She turned and waved, and someone hauling a cart with two bicycle wheels came out of the crowd. He turned out to be a young man of about the same age, in a fedora and trench coat that had seen quite a bit of hard wear; one of his shoulders was noticeably higher than the other.
“Are you with the soldiers?” she asked me.
“No, just visiting. I’m Peter Carr.”
“I’m Emily Franken, and this is my husband Jim.” Hands got shaken all around. The cart was full of what looked like antique radio gear—a couple of big metal boxes with dials, switches, and gauges all over the front, and something that I swear looked like a death-ray gun from some old skiffy vid. The kids craned their necks to look at it all, but had the common sense not to touch anything.
“Should I ask about that?” I motioned to the contents of the cart.
“Sure,” she replied. “It’s a maser—a microwave laser. It’s old tech—they made them in the 1950s, but nobody could figure out how to get real power out of them.” In response to my look of surprise:  “There’s a lot of things like that—interesting bits of technology nobody followed up on.”
“What Emily’s not saying,” Jim interjected, “is that she spent two years studying quantum mechanics to find something that would mase steadily at room temperature, and published a couple of papers that are  going to turn three or four branches of physics on their heads.”
“Oh, stop it,” she said, blushing.
“Not a chance. When we were in engineering school, Mr. Carr, Emily was the only person in class who came up with anything really interesting for me to build.”
“And Jim was the only one in the class who could build the things I needed for my projects—so of course we got married right after graduation.” Laughing: “When he proposed, he said I had to marry him so I’d almost have the right last name to be a mad scientist, and a hunchbacked lab assistant too.”
He grinned, pushed his raised shoulder up further, and gave me a bug-eyed look. I laughed.
Out on the grass, the soldiers had the cannon and mount set up for transport, and hauled it back toward the parking lot and the jeeps. I wished the Frankens good luck, and they hauled the cart of electronic gear out onto the field. They passed Pappas as he came wheeling back, shaking his head.
“Even for the 34th, that’s pretty good,” he said when he reached me and the two captains. “You know what they were shooting?  Canister shot.”
Lopez and I looked blank, but Berconi let out a startled laugh. “Seriously?”
“God’s honest truth.” To the rest of us:  “It’s something artillery used to use back in the Civil War and before—basically, the world’s biggest shotgun shell, with pellets half an inch across.” With a motion of his head in the direction of the Frankens, who were busy setting up their gear: “What’s that all about?”
“Some kind of twentieth century microwave laser,” I said.
Pappas gave me a startled look, then turned to Berconi. “What’s on their schedule?”
“Standard three trials—well, but they’ve requested one with live ordnance.”
Pappas let out a long whistle. “This could get colorful.”
Out on the grass, the two had finished setting up their gear: a row of batteries, the two boxes, the death-ray-thing on a tripod, and cables connecting them. Emily Franken signaled that they were ready, and then got behind the ray-thing and aimed it downrange while her husband hunched over the two boxes and fiddled with the dials. The first drone appeared in the distance. I’m not sure what I was expecting—flashes and bangs, a beam of light, or what have you—but all that happened was that the drone suddenly dropped out of the air as though the Frankens had flipped the off switch at a distance.
A second drone met the same fate a few minutes later. “The third—” Pappas said.
“That’ll be the one with heat on board,” Berconi told him.
By the time the third drone went up people were beginning to drift over to the proof-of-concept range, wondering what was going on. As it came close enough to be more than a distant dot, I could see two missiles under each wing. Emily Franken crouched behind the device she was aiming, Jim twisted dials and fiddled with switches, and all of a sudden the drone vanished in a flash and a bubble of red fire. The sharp crack of the explosion, muffled by the earplugs I was wearing, arrived an instant later. The watching kids whooped in delight.
Berconi and Lopez hurried across the grass to the Frankens the moment the flaming wreckage of the drone was on the ground. “What do you think?” Pappas asked me.
“I have no idea,” I admitted.  “What did they do, microwave the inside of the drones?”
“Good question. If I had to guess—well, you know how a radio antenna works? Radio waves hit a piece of metal the right length and set up a current in it? I wonder if they’ve tuned the thing so that it sets up electrical surges in the onboard computer chips and the fuses for the missiles.”
I gave him a horrified look. “You could fry anything electronic with that.”
“Not our gear. All our electronics use vacuum tubes—you hit those with a surge, they just shrug—but outside electronics? Pretty much, yeah.”
I considered him for a long moment, and then wondered whether this whole business had been staged for my benefit. “You get a lot of mad scientists here in the Lakeland Republic?”
“You’d be surprised,” he said with a grin. “Lots of technologies that got invented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were just plain abandoned even though they worked fine—there wasn’t a market yet, or something else got there first, or somebody bribed the right officials so government policy favored some other technology instead. A lot of engineers here spend their time going through old technical journals and what have you, looking for things that the Republic can use.”
“Like canister shot,” I said.
“Bingo. Or masers, or dragoons—or for that matter canals and canal boats.”
The Frankens had their maser broken down and loaded on the cart, and they were hauling it away, still deep in conversation with Berconi. Lopez headed back our way, while a bunch of soldiers hauled something that looked like a hand-cranked Gatling gun out onto the grass. “Come on,” Pappas said then. “Unless you want to see more here, of course. The expert competition ought to start pretty soon.”

Too Little, Too Late

Wed, 2015-12-23 18:06
Last week, after a great deal of debate, the passengers aboard the Titanic voted to impose modest limits sometime soon on the rate at which water is pouring into the doomed ship’s hull. Despite the torrents of self-congratulatory rhetoric currently flooding into the media from the White House and an assortment of groups on the domesticated end of the environmental movement, that’s the sum of what happened at the COP-21 conference in Paris. It’s a spectacle worth observing, and not only for those of us who are connoisseurs of irony; the factors that drove COP-21 to the latest round of nonsolutions are among the most potent forces shoving industrial civilization on its one-way trip to history’s compost bin.
The core issues up for debate at the Paris meeting were the same that have been rehashed endlessly at previous climate conferences. The consequences of continuing to treat the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer for humanity’s pollutants are becoming increasingly hard to ignore, but nearly everything that defines a modern industrial economy as “modern” and “industrial” produces greenhouse gases, and the continued growth of the world’s modern industrial economies remains the keystone of economic policy around the world. The goal pursued by negotiators at this and previous climate conferences, then, is to find some way to do something about anthropogenic global warming that won’t place any kind of restrictions on economic growth.
What that means in practice is that the world’s nations have more or less committed themselves to limit the rate at which the dumping of greenhouse gases will increase over the next fifteen years. I’d encourage those of my readers who think anything important was accomplished at the Paris conference to read that sentence again, and think about what it implies. The agreement that came out of COP-21 doesn’t commit anybody to stop dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, now or at any point in the future. It doesn’t even commit anybody to set a fixed annual output that will not be exceeded. It simply commits the world’s nations to slow down the rate at which they’re increasing their dumping of greenhouse gases. If this doesn’t sound to you like a recipe for saving the world, let’s just say you’re not alone.
It wasn’t exactly encouraging that the immediate aftermath of the COP-21 agreement was a feeding frenzy among those industries most likely to profit from modest cuts in greenhouse gas consumption—yes, those would be the renewable-energy and nuclear industries, with some efforts to get scraps from the table by proponents of “clean coal,” geoengineering, fusion-power research, and a few other subsidy dumpsters of the same sort. Naomi Oreskes, a writer for whom I used to have a certain degree of respect, published a crassly manipulative screed insisting that anybody who questioned the claim that renewable-energy technologies could keep industrial society powered forever was engaged in, ahem, “a new form of climate denialism.” She was more than matched, to be fair, by a chorus of meretricious shills for the nuclear industry, who were just as quick to insist that renewables couldn’t be scaled up fast enough and nuclear power was the only alternative.
The shills in question are quite correct, as it happens, that renewable energy can’t be scaled up fast enough to replace fossil fuels; they could have said with equal truth that renewable energy can’t be scaled up far enough to accomplish that daunting task. The little detail they’re evading is that nuclear power can’t be scaled up far enough or fast enough, either. What’s more, however great they look on paper or PowerPoint, neither nuclear power nor grid-scale renewable power are economically viable in the real world. The evidence for this is as simple as it is conclusive: no nation anywhere on the planet has managed either one without vast and continuing government subsidies. Lacking those, neither one makes enough economic sense to be worth building, because neither one can provide the kind of cheap abundant electrical power that makes a modern industrial society possible.
Say this in the kind of company that takes global climate change seriously, of course, and if you aren’t simply shouted down by those present—and of course this is the most common response—you can expect to hear someone say, “Well, something has to do it.” Right there you can see the lethal blindness that pervades nearly all contemporary debates about the future, because it’s simply not true that something has to do it.  No divine providence nor any law of nature guarantees that human beings must have access to as much cheap abundant electricity as they happen to want.
Stated thus baldly, that may seem like common sense, but that sort of sense is far from common these days, even—or especially—among those people who think they’re grappling with the hard realities of the future. Here’s a useful example. One of this blog’s readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Antroposcen—made an elegant short film that was shown at a climate-themed film festival in Paris while the COP-21 meeting was slouching toward its pointless end. The film is titled A Message from the Past, and as the title suggests, it portrays an incident from a future on the far side of global climate change. I encourage my readers to click through and watch it now; it’s only a few minutes long, and its point will be perfectly clear to any regular reader of this blog. 
The audience at the film festival, though, found it incomprehensible. The nearest they came to making sense of it was to guess that, despite the title, it was about a message from our time that had somehow found its way to the distant past. The thought that the future on the far side of global climate change might have some resemblance to the preindustrial past—that people in that future, in the wake of the immense collective catastrophes our actions are busy creating for them, might wear handmade clothing of primitive cut and find surviving scraps of our technologies baffling relics of a bygone time—seems to have been wholly beyond the grasp of their imaginations.
Two factors make this blindness to an entire spectrum of probable futures astonishing. The first is that not that long ago, plenty of people in the climate change activism scene were talking openly about the possibility that uncontrolled climate change could stomp industrial society with the inevitability of a boot descending on an eggshell. I’m thinking here, among other examples, of the much-repeated claim by James Lovelock a few years back that the likely outcome of global climate change, if nothing was done, was heat so severe that the only human survivors a few centuries from now would be “a few hundred breeding pairs” huddled around the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
It used to be all the rage in climate change literature to go on at length about the ghastly future that would be ours if global temperatures warmed far enough to trigger serious methane releases from northern permafrost, tip one or more of the planet’s remaining ice sheets into rapid collapse, and send sea water rising to drown low-lying regions. Lurid scenarios of civilizational collapse and mass dieoff appeared in book after lavishly marketed book. Of late, though, that entire theme seems to have dropped out of the collective imagination of the activist community, to be replaced by strident claims that everything will be just fine if we ignore the hard lessons of the last thirty years of attempted renewable-energy buildouts and fling every available dollar, euro, yuan, etc. into subsidies for an even more grandiose wave of uneconomical renewable-energy powerplants.
The second factor is even more remarkable, and it’s the existence of that first factor that makes it so. Those methane releases, rising seas, and collapsing ice sheets? They’re no longer confined to the pages of remaindered global warming books. They’re happening in the real world, right now.
Methane releases? Check out the massive craters blown out of Siberian permafrost in the last few years by huge methane burps, or the way the Arctic Ocean fizzes every summer like a freshly poured soda as underwater methane deposits get destabilized by rising temperatures. Methane isn’t the world-wrecking ultrapollutant that a certain class of apocalyptic fantasy likes to imagine, mostly because it doesn’t last long in the atmosphere—the average lifespan of a methane molecule once it seeps out of the permafrost is about ten years—but while it’s there, it traps heat much more effectively than carbon dioxide. The Arctic is already warming far more drastically than any other region of the planet, and the nice thick blanket of methane with which it’s wrapped itself is an important part of the reason why.
Those methane releases make a great example of the sudden stop that overtook discussions of the harsh future ahead of us, once that future started to arrive. Before they began to occur, methane releases played a huge role in climate change literature—Mark Lynas’ colorful and heavily marketed book Six Degrees is only one of many examples. Once the methane releases actually got under way, as I noted in a post here some years ago, most activists abruptly stopped talking about it, and references to methane on the doomward end of the blogosphere started fielding dismissive comments by climate-change mavens insisting that methane doesn’t matter and carbon dioxide is the thing to watch.
Rising seas? You can watch that in action in low-lying coastal regions anywhere in the world, but for a convenient close-up, pay a visit to Miami Beach, Florida. You’ll want to do that quickly, though, while it’s still there. Sea levels off Florida have been rising about an inch a year, and southern Florida, Miami Beach included, is built on porous limestone.  These days, as a result, whenever an unusually high tide combines with a strong onshore wind, salt water comes bubbling up from the storm sewers and seeping right out of the ground, and the streets of Miami Beach end up hubcap-deep in it. Further inland, seawater is infiltrating the aquifer from which southern Florida gets drinking water, and killing plants in low-lying areas near the coast.
The situation in southern Florida gets some press, but I suspect this is because Florida is a red state and the state government’s frantic denial that global warming is happening makes an easy target for humor. The same phenomenon is happening at varying paces elsewhere in the world, as a combination of thermal expansion of warming seawater, runoff from melting glaciers, and a grab-bag of local and regional oceanographic phenomena boosts sea level well above its historic place. Nothing significant is being done about it—to be fair, it’s unlikely that anything significant can be done about it at this point, short of a total moratorium on greenhouse gas generation, and the COP-21 talks made it painfully clear that that’s not going to happen.
Instead, southern Florida faces a fate that’s going to be all too familiar to many millions of people elsewhere in the world over the years ahead. As fresh water runs short and farm and orchard crops die from salt poisoning, mass migration will be the order of the day. Over the short term, southern Florida will gradually turn into salt marsh; look further into the future, and you can see Florida’s ultimate destiny, as a region of shoals, reefs, and islets extending well out into the Gulf of Mexico, with the corroded ruins of skyscrapers rising from the sea here and there as a reminder of the fading past.
Does this sound like science fiction? It’s the inescapable consequence of changes that are already under way. Even if COP-21 had produced an agreement that mattered—say, a binding commitment on the part of all the world’s nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions immediately and lower them to zero by 2030—southern Florida would still be doomed.  The processes that are driving sea levels up can’t turn on a dime; just as it took more than a century of unrestricted atmospheric pollution to begin the flooding of southern Florida, it would take a long time and a great deal of hard work to reverse that, even if the political will was available. As it is, the agreement signed in Paris simply means that the flooding will continue unchecked.
A far more dramatic series of events, meanwhile, is getting under way far north of Florida. Yes, that’s the breakup of the Greenland ice sheet. During the last few summers, as unprecedented warmth gripped the Arctic, rivers of meltwater have begun flowing across Greenland’s glacial surface, plunging into a growing network of chasms and tunnels that riddle the ice sheet like the holes in Swiss cheese. This is new; discussions of Greenland’s ice sheet from as little as five years ago didn’t mention the meltwater rivers at all, much less the hollowing out of the ice. Equally new is the fact that the vast majority of that meltwater isn’t flowing into the ocean—scientists have checked that, using every tool at their disposal up to and including legions of yellow rubber ducks tossed into meltwater streams.
What all this means is that in the decades immediately ahead of us, in all likelihood, we’ll get to see a spectacle no human being has seen since the end of the last ice age: the catastrophic breakup of a major ice sheet. If you got taught in school, as so many American schoolchildren were, that the great glacial sheets of the ice age melted at an imperceptible pace, think again; glaciologists disproved that decades ago. What happens, instead, is a series of sudden collapses that kick the pace of melting into overdrive at unpredictable intervals. What paleoclimatologists call global meltwater pulses—sudden surges of ice and water from collapsing ice sheets—send sea levels soaring by several meters, drowning large tracts of land in an impressively short time.
Ice sheet collapses happen in a variety of ways, and Greenland is very well positioned to enact one of the better documented processes. The vast weight of all that ice pressing down on the crust through the millennia has turned the land beneath the ice into a shallow bowl surrounded by mountains—and that shallow bowl is where all the meltwater is going. Eventually the water will rise high enough to find an outlet to the sea, and when it does, it will begin to flow out—and it will take much of the ice with it.
As that happens, seismographs across the North Atlantic basin will go crazy as Greenland’s ice sheet, tormented beyond endurance by the conflict between gravity and buoyancy, begins to break apart. A first great meltwater surged will vomit anything up to thousands of cubic miles of ice into the ocean. Huge icebergs will drift east and then south on the currents, and release more water as they melt. After that, summer after summer, the process will repeat itself, until some fraction of Greenland’s total ice sheet has been dumped into the ocean. How large a fraction? That’s impossible to know in advance, but all other things being equal, the more greenhouse gases get dumped into the atmosphere, the faster and more complete Greenland’s breakup will be.
Oh, and did I mention that the West Antarctic ice sheet is beginning to break up as well?
The thing to keep in mind here is that the coming global meltwater pulse will have consequences all over the world. Once it happens—and again, the processes that will lead to that event are already well under way, and nothing the world’s industrial nations are willing to do can stop it—it will simply be a matter of time before the statistically inevitable combination of high tides and stormwinds sends sea water flooding into New York City’s subway system and the vast network of underground tunnels that houses much of the city’s infrastructure. Every other coastal city in the world will wait for its own number to come up. No doubt we’ll hear plenty of talk about building vast new flood defenses to keep back the rising waters, but let us please be real; any such project would require years of lead time and almost unimaginable amounts of money, and no nation anywhere in the world is showing the least interest in doing the thing now, when it might still be an option.
There’s a profound irony, in other words, in all the rhetoric from Paris about balancing concerns about the climate with the supposed need for perpetual economic growth. Imagine for a moment just how the coming global meltwater pulse will impact the world economy. Countless trillions of dollars in coastal infrastructure around the world will become “sunk costs” in more than a metaphorical sense; millions of people in low-lying areas such as southern Florida will have to relocate as their homes become uninhabitable, and trillions of dollars of real estate will have its value drop to zero. A galaxy of costs for which nobody is planning will have to be met out of government and business revenue streams that have been hammered by the direct and indirect effects of worldwide coastal flooding.
What’s more, it won’t be a single event, over and done with in a few weeks or months or years.  Every year for decades or centuries to come, more ice and meltwater will go sluicing into the oceans, more coastal cities and regions will face that one seawater surge too many, more costs will have to be met out of what’s left of a global economy that’s running out of functioning deepwater ports among many other things. The result, as I’ve noted in previous posts here, will be the disintegration of everything that counts as business as usual, and the opening phases of the bleak new reality that Frank Landis has sketched out in his harrowing new book Hot Earth Dreams—the best currently available book on what the world will look like in the wake of severe climate change, and thus inevitably ignored by everyone in the current environmental mainstream.
By the time COP-21’s attendees convened in Paris, it was probably already too late to keep global climate change from spinning completely out of control. The embarrassingly feeble agreement that came out of that event, though, has guaranteed that nothing significant will be done. The hard political and economic realities that made any actual cut in greenhouse gas emissions all but unthinkable are just layers of icing on the cake, part of the predicament of our time—a predicament that defines the words “too little, too late” as our basic approach to the future looming up ahead of us.

Retrotopia: A Gift to be Simple

Wed, 2015-12-16 16:42
This is the eleventh installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator ventures out of Toledo into a tier one rural county and sees one of the alternative cultures taking shape in the Lakeland Republic. 
***********We changed trains in Defiance. The station wasn’t much more than a raised platform running along each side of the tracks, with a shelter of cast iron and glass overhead to keep off any rain that might happen along. The day was shaping up clear and cool; the town looked like old county seats I’d seen in parts of upstate New York that hadn’t been flattened during the endgame of the Second Civil War, a patchwork of clapboard and brick with the county courthouse rising above the nearby roofs. I could see only two obvious differences—first, that the only vehicles on the streets were pulled by horses, and second, that all the houses looked lived in and all the businesses I could see seemed to be open.
The train west to Hicksville came after we’d waited about fifteen minutes. Colonel Pappas and I weren’t the only people waiting for it, either. Something close to a hundred people got off the train from Toledo with us, some in olive drab Lakeland Army uniforms, some in civilian clothing, all of them with luggage and most with long flat cases that I guessed held guns. Once Pappas rolled up the ramp onto one of the cars and I followed him, I found that the train was already more than half full, and it was the same mix, some soldiers, some civilians, plenty of firepower.
I sat down next to Pappas, who gestured expansively at the train. “Not what you’d usually see going to Hicksville,” he said. “Every other time of the year this is a twice a day milk run that hits every farm town between Bowling Green and Warsaw. This weekend it’s six or eight runs this size every day.”
The train jolted into motion, and I watched Defiance slide past. After maybe a mile, we were rolling through farmland dotted with houses and barns. Some of the houses had wind turbines rising up above them and solar water heaters on the roofs, while others didn’t; tall antennas I guessed were meant for radio rose above most of them, but not all. The dirt roads looked well tended and the bridges were in good repair. I shook my head, trying to make sense of it.
“Checking out tier one?” Pappas asked me.
I glanced at him. “Pretty much. I wasn’t expecting to see the wind and solar gear.”
“You’re thinking it’s tier one, how come they have tech that wasn’t around in 1830, right?” When I nodded, he laughed. “Outsiders always get hung up on that. Tier level just says what infrastructure gets paid for by county taxes. You can get whatever tech you want if it’s your own money.”
“What about a veepad?”
“Sure, as long as you don’t expect somebody else to pay for a metanet to make it work.”
I nodded again, conceding the point. “I get the sense that a lot of people here wouldn’t buy modern technology even if they could.”
“True enough. Some of that’s religious—we’ve got a lot of Amish and Mennonites here, and there’re also some newer sects along the same lines, Keelyites, New Shakers, that sort of thing. Some of it’s political—most of the people in the full-on Resto parties are just as much into low-tech in their own lives as they are in their politics. They learned that lesson from the environmentalists before the war—you know about those?”
It was my turn to laugh. “Yeah. I had some of them in my family when I was a kid. ‘I want to save the Earth, but not enough to stop driving my SUV.’”
“Bingo—and you know how much good that did. The Restos aren’t into that sort of hypocrisy, so a lot of them end up in low-tier counties and stick to simple tech.”
“What do you think of that?”
“Me? I’m a city kid. I like nightlife, public transit—” He slapped one of the tires of his wheelchair.  “—smooth sidewalks. Tier one’s fun to visit but I’d rather live tier four or five.”
The train rattled through farmland for an hour or so, stopping once at a little place named Sherwood, before we reached Hicksville. The station there was even more rudimentary than the one at Defiance, just a raised platform and a long single-story building with a peaked roof alongside the track, but Pappas had no trouble maneuvering his wheelchair on the platform once we got off the train. “We’ll wait here,” he told me. “Once the crowd clears someone’ll meet us.”
He was right, of course. After a couple of minutes, as the train rolled westwards out of the station and the crowd started to thin, a young man in army uniform with corporal’s stripes on his sleeves wove his way toward us and saluted Pappas. “Colonel, sir,” he said, “good to see you.” To me:  “You’re Mr. Carr, right? Pleased to meet you. The jeep’s this way.”
He wasn’t kidding. Sitting on the street next to the station, incongruous amid a press of horsedrawn carts and wagons, was what looked like a jeep straight out of a World War Two history vid. Pappas saw the expression on my face, and laughed. “The army’s got a lot of those,” he told me. “Good, cheap, sturdy, and it handles unpaved roads just fine.”
“What fuel does it use?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s diesel. Everything we use runs on vegetable oil if it doesn’t eat corned beef or hay.”
Pappas hauled himself into the jeep’s front passenger seat while I tried to parse that. The corporal helped him get his wheelchair folded and stowed, then waved me to a seat in back and went to the driver’s seat. I got in next to the wheelchair, found a place for my suitcase, and got a firm grip on the grab bar as the engine roared to life.
Six blocks later we were on the edge of Hicksville. “Tomorrow’s action is twelve miles north of town,” Pappas told me. “We’ll be staying right near there—all the farmhouses around here rent out rooms to visitors. Melanie told me you want to see how people live in tier one; you’ll get an eyeful.”
It took us half an hour to get to the farm Pappas had in mind, driving on what pretty clearly wasn’t the main road—now and then I could see dust rising off to the east, and a couple of times spotted what had to be a line of wagons and carts carrying people and luggage toward whatever was going to happen the next day. I speculated about why I wasn’t part of that line—Pappas’ rank, maybe? Or a courtesy toward a guest from outside who wasn’t used to horsedrawn travel? That latter irked me a bit, even though I was grateful for the quick trip.
Finally the jeep swerved off the road, rattled along a rough driveway maybe a half mile long, and clattered to a stop in front of a sprawling clapboard-sided building three stories tall. Two others and a huge barn stood nearby, and fields, pastures, and gardens spread out in all directions around them.
“Welcome to Harmony Gathering,” Pappas said, turning half around in his seat. “I mentioned the New Shakers earlier, remember? You’re about to meet some of ‘em.”
By the time he finished speaking the front door of the building swung open and a big gray-bearded man in overalls and a plain blue short-sleeved shirt came out. “Good day, Tom,” he called out. “And—Mr. Carr, I believe.”
I got out of the jeep. “Peter Carr,” I said, shaking his hand.
“I’m Brother Orren. Be welcome to our Gathering.” He turned to the corporal. “Joe, do you need help with any of that?”
“Nah, I’ve got it.” The corporal came around, got the wheelchair unfolded, and Pappas slid into it. I got my suitcase; the gray-bearded man turned back to the door and nodded once, and a boy of ten or so dressed the same way he was came out at a trot, took the suitcase from me, gave me a big smile, and vanished back into the building with it.
“Things hopping yet, Orren?” Pappas asked him.
“Oh, very much so. You have plenty of company.” He motioned toward the door. “Shall we?”
Inside the walls were bare and white, the furniture plain and sturdy, the air thick with the smell of baking bread. “Tom tells me that you’re from the Atlantic Republic,” the bearded man said to me. “I don’t believe our church has put down roots there yet. If you have questions—why, ask me, or anyone.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll take you up on that once I figure out what to ask.”
He beamed. “I’ll welcome that. Of course you’ll want to get the dust off first, and lunch will be ready shortly.” He turned and called out:  “Sister Susannah? Could you show our guests to their rooms?”
An old woman with improbably green eyes, dressed in a plain blue dress, came into the room from a corridor I hadn’t noticed. “Of course. Come with me, please.”
“Don’t worry about me, Sue,” Pappas said. “I know the way.”
That got a quiet laugh and a nod. Pappas rolled away down a different corridor, and the old woman led me up a nearby stair and down a long hall lined with doors. “This is yours,” she said, opening one. “Give me just a moment.”  She smiled, went on further down the hall.
The room was a simple cubicle with a bed on one side, a dresser and desk on the other, and a window on the far end. The bare white walls and the plain sturdy furniture were scrupulously clean, and the bed had a thick colorful quilt on it. My suitcase had been set down neatly beside the dresser.
A moment later the old woman was back with two pitchers and a bowl. “Here you are,” she said, setting them on the desk. “If you need anything else, please ring the bell and someone will be up to help you right away.” She smiled again and left, closing the door behind her.
The pitchers turned out to contain hot and cold water. Towels and a washcloth hung on a rack near the door, and a little shelf next to it had a bar of soap on it that didn’t look as though it had ever seen the inside of a factory. Two bags hanging from the back of the door had hand-embroidered labels on them, towels and linen and guest clothing; over to one side was an oddly shaped chair that turned out on inspection to be some sort of portable toilet, with a big porcelain pot underneath that sealed with a tightly fitting lid when it wasn’t in use. Tier one, I thought, and decided to make the best of it.
The funny thing was that the primitive accommodations weren’t actually that much more awkward or difficult to use than the facilities you’d find in a good hotel in Philadelphia. I wasn’t sure what I would be in for if I decided to take a bath, but I managed to get cleaned up and presentable in short order, and went out into the hall feeling distinctly ready for the lunch the old man had mentioned. I wondered for a moment if I should ring the bell, but that didn’t turn out to be necessary; as soon as I stepped out into the hall, the same boy who’d taken my suitcase up to the room came down the hall and  gave me directions. As I left, he was hauling away the water pitchers.
Lunch—sandwiches on homebaked whole-grain bread and big bowls of hearty chicken soup—was served in a big plain room in back, where big wooden tables and benches  ran in long rows, and the benches were full of men in Lakeland Republic uniforms; the only people who wore New Shaker blue were a couple of young men who brought out the food.  “The people who live here eat in their own dining hall,” Pappas told me when I asked him about that. “You’re welcome to join them, if you don’t mind eating in perfect silence while somebody reads out loud from the Bible.”
“I’ll pass,” I said.
He laughed. “Me too.  Sundays at Holy Trinity is enough religion for me, but I guess it works for them. They start a new Gathering somewhere every few years, they’re growing that fast.”
I racked my brains for the little I knew about the original Shakers. “Do they swear off sex?”
“No, that was the old Shakers. The New Shakers marry, or some of them do—Orren and Sue are a couple, for example. The brothers and sisters don’t own anything, not even a toothbrush, and live together like the old Shakers did.”
“And the other sect you mentioned?”
“The Keelyites? They’re like the Amish, they own their own homes and farms, but they’ve got their own beliefs and their prophet Eleanor Keely put a third testament into their Bibles. They’ll tell you that when God said we have to live by the sweat of our brows, He meant that anything that’s not powered by human muscles is sinful.”
“We’ve got Third Order Amish back home who say that,” I told him.
Pappas considered that. “I don’t think we have them here yet,” he said. “Now that the border’s opened, who knows? I bet they talk theology with the Keelyites. God knows what they’ll come up with.”
About the time I’d polished off lunch, Brother Orren came in and asked if I’d be interested in a tour of the Gathering—I gathered he’d been briefed by somebody—and I spent the afternoon trotting around the place with a soft-spoken guy in his early twenties named Micah, who had brown skin and a mane of frizzy red-brown hair. “My parents got killed in an air raid during the war of ‘49,” he told me as we walked toward the barn, “and the Gathering took me in. Any child who comes to us finds a home.”
“Did you ever consider leaving?” I asked.
“I left when I was nineteen,” he told me. “Spent three years out in the world, two of them in the army. It was a learning experience. But I came back once I realized that this was where I belong.”
“Do you miss anything from outside the Gathering?”
“Oh, now and again. Still, there’s a song we inherited from the old Shakers; the first line is ‘Tis a gift to be simple’—and that’s true, at least for me. It’s a gift, and as we say, a grace, and I’m happier here than I ever was out there in the world.”
I thought about that as we walked through the barn, the greenhouses, and the rest of the Gathering. In its own way, it was impressive—a community of around two hundred people that met all its own needs from its own fields and workshops, and produced enough of a surplus to make it an asset to the local economy—but something about it troubled me, and I sat up late that night, by the glow of the one candle each room was allotted, trying to figure out what it was.

The Flutter of Space Bat Wings

Wed, 2015-12-09 17:12
You don’t actually know a time or a culture until you discover the thoughts that its people can’t allow themselves to think. I had a reminder of that the other day, by way of my novel Star’s Reach.
I’m pleased to say that for a novel that violates pretty much every imaginable pop-culture cliché about the future, Star’s Reach has been selling quite well—enough so that the publisher has brought out two more SF novels set in deindustrial futures, and is looking for other manuscripts along the same lines. What’s more, Star’s Reach has also started to inspire spinoffs and adaptations: a graphic novel is in the works, so is a roleplaying game, and so is an anthology of short stories by other authors set in the world sketched out in my novel. All of this came as a welcome surprise to me; far more surprising, though ultimately rather less welcome, was an ebullient email I received asking whether Star’s Reach was available to be optioned for a television miniseries.
For a variety of reasons, some of which will become clear as we proceed, I’ll call the person who got in touch with me Buck Rogers. He praised Star’s Reach to the skies, and went on at length about wanting to do something that was utterly faithful to the book. As I think most of my readers know by now, I haven’t owned a television in my adult life and have zero interest in changing that, even to see one of my own stories on the screen. I could readily see that people who like television might find a video adaptation entertaining, though, and no doubt it would make a welcome change from the endless rehash of overfamiliar tropes about the future that fills so much of science fiction these days.
Ah, but then came the inevitable email explaining exactly what kind of adaptation Buck Rogers had in mind. It was going to be more than just a miniseries, he explained. It was going to be a regular series, the events of my novel were going to provide the plot for the first year, and after that—why, after that, he was promptly going to drag in one of the currently popular bits of hypertechnological handwaving so the characters in my story could go zooming off to the stars. Whee!

Those of my readers who haven’t turned the pages of Star’s Reach may welcome a bit of explanation here. The core theme of Star’s Reach—the mainspring that powers the plot—is precisely that humanity isn’t going to the stars; the contrast between the grandiose gizmocentric fantasies of today’s industrial world and the grubby realities of life in 25th-century Meriga frames and guides the entire novel. An adaptation of Star’s Reach that removes that little detail and replaces it with yet another rehash of the interstellar-travel trope is thus a bit like an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in which the hobbits enthusiastically sell out to the powers of evil and Sauron wins.
I communicated this to Buck Rogers, and got back a lengthy response of the take-my-ball-and-go-home variety, saying in a hurt tone that I was wrong and just didn’t understand how his proposal fit perfectly with my story. I sent him a polite note wishing him luck in his future projects, and that was that. All in all, I think the situation turned out for the best. I’m not particularly desperate for money—certainly not desperate enough to be willing to see one of my favorite books gutted, stuffed, and mounted on the nose cone of an imaginary starship—and this way I still have the movie and TV rights, on the off chance that somebody ever wants to film the story I wrote, rather than a parody of it.
It was only after I’d clicked the “send” button on the short polite note just mentioned that I realized that there was something really quite strange about Buck Rogers’ final email. He had taken issue at rather some length with almost everything I’d said while trying to explain to him why his proposal wasn’t one I could accept, with one exception. It wasn’t a small exception, either. It was the core issue I’d raised at quite some length: that he’d taken a story about what happens when humanity can’t go to the stars, and tried to turn it into a story about humanity going to the stars.
I don’t think that absence was any kind of accident, either. You don’t actually know a time or a culture until you discover the thoughts that its people can’t allow themselves to think.

This wasn’t the only time Star’s Reach had attracted that same sort of doublethink, for that matter. Back when it was being written and posted online an episode at a time, I could count nearly every month on hearing from people who enthused about how wonderful the story was, and in the next breath tried to push me into inserting some pop-culture cliché about what the future is supposed to look like. Far more often than not, the point of the insertion was to show that “progress” was still on track and would eventually lead to a more “advanced” society—that is, a society like ours. When I explained that the story is about what happens when “progress,” in the sense that word has today, is over forever, and our kind of society is a fading memory of the troubled past, they simply insisted all the louder that the changes they wanted me to make were perfectly consistent with my story.

Regular readers may also recall the discussion a few weeks back of the way so many people’s brains seem to freeze up when faced with the idea that others might choose not to use the latest technology, and might instead keep using older technologies they like better. Further back in this blog’s trajectory, three or four other topics—most notably the prospects for the survival of the internet in a deindustrializing world—reliably triggered the same odd behavior pattern, an obsessive evasion of the point accompanied by the weirdly stereotyped repetition of some set of canned talking points.

It’s fascinating, at least to me, that so many topics brought up in this blog seem to function, for some readers, as a kind of elephant’s graveyard of the mind, a place where thinking goes to die. That said, among all the things that trigger a mental Blue Screen of Death in a portion of my readers, challenging the frankly rather bizarre notion that humanity’s destiny centers on interstellar travel stands at least a little apart, in the sheer intensity of the emotional reactions it rouses. If I try to call attention to the other evasions on the list, I get a blank look or, at most, an irritated one, followed by an instant return to the evasions. On the subject of interstellar travel, by contrast, I get instant pushback: “No, no, no, there’s got to be some grandiose technofetishistic deus ex machina that will let us go to the STARZ!!!”
The question in my mind is why this particular bit of endlessly rehashed science fiction has gotten so tight a hold on the collective imagination of our age.
I suppose a case can be made that its ascendancy in science fiction itself was inevitable. SF in its pulp days found its main audience among teenage boys, after all, and so it makes sense that the genre would fixate on the imagery of climbing aboard a giant metal penis to be squirted into the gaping void of space. Even so, plenty of other images that were just as appealing to the adolescent male imagination, and just as popular in the early days of the genre, somehow got recognized as hackneyed tropes along the route that led from the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s to the paperback SF novels of today, while interstellar travel has so far evaded that fate.
By the time I first started writing science fiction, for example, everyone had more or less noticed that traveling to an exotic future by way of suspended animation, or the couple of other standard gimmicks, had been done to death decades before, and deserved a rest. Somehow, though, very few people noticed that traveling to an exotic planet by way of one of the three or four standard gimmicks for interstellar travel had been overused just as thoroughly by that time, if not more so, and deserved at least as much of a break—and of course it’s gotten even more of a workout since then.
It’s reached the point, in fact, that with embarrassingly few exceptions, you have your choice between two and only two futures in today’s science fiction: you can have interplanetary travel or apocalyptic collapse, take your pick. No other futures need apply—and of course the same thing is true even when people think they’re talking about the actual future. So taut a fixation clearly has something to communicate. I think I’ve figured out part of what it’s trying to say, with the help of one of the authors who helped make science fiction the frankly more imaginative genre it was in the days before the Space Patrol took over exclusive management. Yes, that would be the inimitable H.P. Lovecraft.
Few people nowadays think of Lovecraft as a science fiction writer at all. This strikes me as a major lapse, and not just because the man wrote some classic gizmocentric stories and made the theme of alien contact a major concern of his fiction. He was unique among the authors of imaginative fiction in his generation in tackling the most challenging of all the discoveries of twentieth century science—the sheer scale, in space and time, of the universe in which human beings find themselves.
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould coined the term “deep time” for the immensities of past and future that reduce our familiar human timescales to pipsqueak proportions. It’s a useful coinage, and might well be paired with the phrase “deep space,” meaning the spatial vastness that does the same trick to our human sense of distance. Lovecraft understood deep time and deep space to an extent few of his contemporaries shared—an extent that allowed him to take firm grasp of the yawning chasm between our species’ sense of self-importance and its actual place in the cosmos.
If the view of the universe revealed to us by modern science is even approximately accurate—and, like Lovecraft, I have no doubt of this—then the entire history of our species, from its emergence sometime in the Pleistocene to its extinction at some as yet undetermined point in the future, is a brief incident on the wet film that covers the surface of a small planet circling an undistinguished star over to one side of an ordinary galaxy. Is it important, that brief incident? To us, surely—but only to us. In Lovecraft’s words, we are “faced by the black, unfathomable gulph of the Outside, with its forever-unexplorable orbs & its virtually certain sprinkling of utterly unknowable life-forms.” Notice the adjectives here: unfathomable, unexplorable, unknowable. What he’s saying here, and throughout his fiction as well, is plain: the message of deep time and deep space is that the cosmos is not there for our benefit. 
That’s precisely the realization that so much of today’s science fiction is frantically trying not to get. The same sort of thinking that led ancient cultures to see bears, queens, and hunting dogs in the inkblot patterns of the skies has been put to hard work in the attempt to reimagine the cosmos as “New Worlds For Man,” a bona fide wonderland of real estate just waiting for our starships to show up and claim it. It’s not just ordinary acquisitiveness that drives this, though no doubt that plays a part; the core of it is the desperate desire to reduce the unhuman vastness of the cosmos to a human scale.

The same kind of logic drives the fatuous claims that humanity will watch the sun die, or what have you. Let us please be real; if we get lucky, not to mention a good deal smarter than we’ve shown any sign of being so far, we might make it a few tens of millions of years (that is, five or ten thousand times the length of recorded history) before our mistakes or the ordinary crises of planetary history push us through extinction’s one-way turnstile. For all we know, other intelligent species may arise on this planet long after we’re gone, and pore over our fossilized bones, before they depart in turn. “Nor is it to be thought”—this is Lovecraft again, quoting his fictional Necronomicon—“that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters.” Spooky, isn’t it? Now ask yourself this: why is it spooky?
The modern attempt to impose a human scale on the cosmos is actually something of an anomaly in terms of human cultures. If the ancient Greeks, for example, had gotten to telescopes and stratigraphy first, and figured out the actual immensity of space and time, that discovery wouldn’t have bothered them at all. Ancient Greek religion takes it as given that human beings simply aren’t that important in the scheme of things. Turn the pages of Hesiod, to drop only one famous name, and you’ll find a clear sense of the sharply limited place humanity has in the cosmos, and a calm acceptance of the eventual certainty of human extinction.
It’s one of history’s most savage ironies that the scientific discoveries that revealed the insignificance of humanity were made by societies whose religious ideas didn’t take that sensible view. Most versions of traditional Christian teaching place humanity at the center of the cosmic story: the world was made for our benefit, God himself became a man and died to save us, and as soon as the drama of human salvation is over, the world will end. Of all world religions, Christianity has historically been the most relentlessly anthropocentric—it can be understood in less human-centered terms, but by and large, it hasn’t been—and it was societies steeped in Christian ideas that first found themselves staring in horror at a cosmos in which anthropocentric ideas are all too clearly the last word in absurdity.
I’ve discussed at some length in my recent book After Progress how belief in progress was turned into a surrogate religion by people who found that they could no longer believe in Christian doctrine but still had the emotional needs that had once been met by Christian faith. The inability to tolerate doubts concerning “Man’s Destiny In The Stars” unfolds from the same conflict. Raised in a culture that’s still profoundly shaped by Christian attitudes, taught to think of the cosmos in anthropocentric terms, people in the United States today crash facefirst into the universe revealed by science, and cognitive dissonance is the inevitable result. No wonder so many of us are basically gaga these days.
Such reflections lead out toward any number of big questions. Just at the moment, though, I want to focus on something on a slightly less cosmic scale. Regular readers will remember that a while back, at the conclusion of the last Space Bats challenge, I wished aloud that someone would launch a quarterly magazine to publish the torrent of good stories set in deindustrial futures that people were clearly eager to write. The publication fairy was apparently listening, and I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new quarterly magazine of deindustrial science fiction, Into The Ruins. Given the frankly astonishing quality of the stories submitted to the three Space Bats challenges we’ve had so far, I suspect that Into The Ruins is going to become one of those “must read” magazines that, like Weird Tales in the 1920s and 1930s, defines a genre and launches the careers of any number of major writers. This is a paying market, folks; let your writer friends know.
With that under way, we can start pushing the boundaries even further.
One criticism that’s been directed at past Space Bats challenges, and at the three published After Oil anthologies that have come out of them so far (the fourth will be published early in the new year), is that collapse has become a cliché in contemporary science fiction and culture. Mind you, a lot of those who make this criticism are in the unenviable position of the pot discussing the color of the kettle—I’m thinking here especially of SF writer and prolific blogger David Brin, whose novels fixate on the even more spectacularly overworked trope of salvation through technological progress, with space travel playing its usual hackneyed part—but there’s a point to the critique.
Mind you, I still think that the decline and fall of industrial civilization and the coming of a deindustrial dark age is far and away the most likely future we face. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, the opportunities that might have gotten us out of that unwelcome future have slipped past, and the same mistakes that have been made by every other civilization on its way down have been made by ours. What’s more, there are still plenty of good stories waiting to be written about how industrial society ran itself into the ground and what happened then—it’s the apocalyptic end of the spectrum of possibilities that’s been written into the ground at this point, while the kind of ragged decline that usually happens in real history has barely been tapped as a source of stories. That said, since we’re talking about imaginative fiction, maybe it’s worth, for once, stepping entirely outside the binary of progress versus collapse, and seeing what the landscape looks like from a third option.
Yes, the sound that you’re hearing is the flutter of space bat wings. It’s time for a new challenge, and this one is going to take a leap into the unthinkable.
The mechanics are the same as in previous Space Bats challenges. Post your story to the internet—if you don’t have a blog, you can get one for free from Blogspot or Wordpress. Put a link to it in the comments section of this blog, preferably in the comments to the most recent post, so everyone sees it. Stories are due by the last day of June, 2016—fans of Al Stewart are welcome to insert the appropriate joke here.
The rules of the contest, in turn, are almost the same as before:
Stories should be between 2500 and 8500 words in length;
They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;
They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;
They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;
They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;
They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;
They should take into account the reality of limits to growth, finite supplies of nonrenewable resources, and the other hard realities of our species’ current predicament;
They should not include space travel—again, that weary cliché is long overdue for a rest;
They should not rely on “alien space bats” to solve humanity’s problems—miraculous technological discoveries, the timely arrival of advanced alien civilizations, sudden lurches in consciousness that make everyone in the world start acting like characters in a bad utopian novel, or what have you;
Finally, they must be set in futures in which neither continued technological progress nor the collapse of civilization take place.
I probably need to explain this last point in more detail. Through most of human history, progress was a very occasional thing, and most people could expect to use the same tools, do the same work, and live in the same conditions as their great-grandparents. The last three centuries changed that for a while, but that change was a temporary condition driven by the reckless exploitation of a half billion years of fossil sunlight. Now that the earth’s cookie jar of carbon is running short, to say nothing of all the other essential resources that are rapidly depleting, the conditions that made that burst of progress possible are ending, and it’s reasonable to assume that progress as we know it will end as well.
Does that mean that nothing new will ever be invented again? Of course not. It does mean the end of the relentless drive toward ever more extravagant uses of energy and resources that characterizes our current notions of progress. Future inventions will by and large use fewer resources and less energy than the things they replace, as was generally the case in the preindustrial past, and the pace of invention and technological obsolescence will decline very sharply from its present level. Authors who want to put interesting technologies into their stories are entirely welcome to do so—but don’t make the story about the onward march of gizmocentricity, please. That’s been done to death, and it’s boring.
In the same way, history is full of crises. Major wars come every few generations, nations collapse from time to time, whole civilizations decline and fall when they’ve exhausted their resource bases. All these things will happen in the future as they happened in the past, and it’s perfectly okay to put crises large or small into your stories. What I’m asking is that this time, your stories should not center on the process of collapse. Mind you, quite a few of the stories in the first three anthologies didn’t have that focus, and the fourth anthology—consisting of stories set at least a thousand years in the future—is entirely about other themes, so I don’t think this one will be too difficult.

Neither progress nor collapse. That opens up a very wide and almost unexplored territory. What does the future look like if those overfamiliar options are removed from the equation? Give it a try.

Retrotopia: Economics by Other Means

Wed, 2015-12-02 17:04
This is the tenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator catches a train for the agricultural hinterlands of the Lakeland Republic, and learns some of the reasons why the Republic is so hard to invade.
***********The phone rang at eight a.m. sharp the next morning. I was in the bathroom, trying to get my electric shaver to give me a shave half as good as the one I got at the barbershop, and failing; I turned the thing off, put it down, and got to the phone on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Mr. Carr? Melanie Berger. We’ve got everything lined up for your trip today. Can you be at the train station by nine o’clock?”
“Sure thing,” I said.
“Good. Your tickets will be waiting for you, and Colonel Tom Pappas will meet you there. You can’t miss him; look for a wheelchair and a handlebar mustache.”
The wheelchair didn’t sound too promising—I had no idea what kind of accommodations counties in the Lakeland Republic’s lower tiers made for people with disabilities—but I figured Meeker’s people knew what they were doing. “I’ll do that.”
“You’ll be back Saturday evening,” Berger said then. “The president would like to see you again Monday afternoon, if you’re free.”
“I’ll put it on the schedule,” I assured her; we said the usual, and I hung up.
It took me only a few minutes to pack for the trip, and then it was out the door, down the stairs, and through the lobby to the street to wave down a taxi. As I got out onto the sidewalk, a kid with a bag of rolled newspapers hanging from one shoulder turned toward me expectantly and said, “Morning Blade? ‘Nother satellite got hit.”
That sounded worth the price of a paper; I handed over a bill and a couple of coins, got the paper in return, thanked the kid, and went to the street’s edge. A couple of minutes later I was sitting in a two-wheel cab headed for the train station, listening to the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves ahead and reading the top story on the newspaper’s front page.
The kid who’d sold me the paper hadn’t been exaggerating. A chunk of the Progresso IV satellite that got taken out by space junk a week before had plowed into a big Russian telecommunications satellite during the night, spraying fragments at twenty thousand miles an hour across any number of midrange orbits. Nothing else had been hit yet, but the odds of a full-blown Kessler syndrome had just gone up by a factor I didn’t want to think about.
Aside from the fact itself, only one thing caught my attention in the article: a comment from a professor of astronomy at the University of Toledo, mentioning that his department was calculating the orbits of as many fragments as they’d been able to track. I didn’t know a lot about astronomy, but I’d learned just enough that the thought of trying to work out an orbit using pen and paper made my head hurt. I wondered if they’d scraped together the money to buy a bootleg computer from a Chicago smuggling ring or something like that. 
I’d just about finished the first section of the paper when the taxi pulled up to the sidewalk in front of the train station. I paid the cabbie, stuffed the newspaper into my coat pocket, and headed inside. The big clock above the ticket counters said eight-thirty; there wasn’t much of a line, so by eight-forty I had my round trip ticket in an inner pocket and was heading through the doors marked Platform Four.
I’d just about gotten my bearings when I spotted a burly man in a wheelchair halfway down the platform. He turned around and saw me a moment later, made a little casual half-salute with one hand, and wheeled over to meet me. Berger hadn’t been kidding about the handlebar mustache; it was big, black, and curled at the tips. That and bushy eyebrows made up for the lack of a single visible hair anywhere else on his head. He was wearing the first hip-length jacket I’d seen anywhere in the Lakeland Republic, over an olive-drab military uniform.
“Peter Carr?” he said. “I’m Tom Pappas. Call me Tom; everyone else does.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand. The guy had hands the size of hams and a grip that would put a gorilla to shame.
“Melanie tells me you rattled the boss good and proper yesterday,” he said with a chuckle. “You probably know we’ve been getting a lot of semi-official visitors from outside governments since the borders opened. Of course they all want to know about our military. Care to guess how many of them asked about that right up front, to the President’s face?”
“I can’t be the only one,” I protested.
“Not quite. Ever met T. Bayard Batchley?”
I burst out laughing. “Yes, I’ve met him. Don’t tell me he’s the only other.”
“Got it in one. Of course he blustered about it in the grand Texan style, and more or less implied that the entire army of the Republic of Texas was drooling over the prospect of invading us.”
I shook my head, still laughing. “I bet. I was on a trade mission to Austin a while back, and we got a Batchley lecture to the effect that everyone in Philadelphia was going to starve to death if they didn’t get shipments of Texas beef that week.”
“Sounds about right.”
The train came up to the platform just then, and the roar of the locomotive erased any possibility of further conversation for the moment. The conductor took our tickets and waved us toward one of the cars. I wondered how Pappas was going to climb the foot or so from the platform to the door, but about the time I’d finished formulating the thought, one of the car attendants popped out, grabbed a handle I hadn’t noticed under the step, and slid out a steel ramp. Pappas rolled up into the car, the attendant pushed the ramp back into its place, they said a few words to each other, and then Pappas wheeled his way over to a place at the back of the car, flipped one of the two seats up, and got a couple of tiedown straps fastened onto his chair by the time I’d followed him.
I took the seat next to him. “Do they have this sort of thing in all the trains here?”
“Wheelchair spots? You bet. We had a lot of disabled vets after the Second Civil War, of course, and got a bunch more in ‘49. That’s how I ended up in this thing—got stupid during the siege of Paducah, and took some shrapnel down low in my back.”
The train filled up around us.  “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Oh, it doesn’t slow me down that much.  The only complaint I’ve got is that I’m stuck in a desk job in Toledo now, instead of out there in the field.” He shook his head. “How much did they tell you about our military?”
“Here, or back home?”
“Either one.”
“Here, nothing. Back home—” I considered the briefings I’d been given, edited out the classified parts. “They’re pretty much baffled. We know you’ve got universal military service on the Swiss model, but no modern military tech at all—plenty of light infantry and field artillery, but no armor, no drones, no air force worth mentioning, and a glorified coast guard on the Great Lakes.”
He nodded as the train lurched into motion. “That’s about right. And you’re wondering how we can get away with that.”
“It’s a concern,” I said. “As I told President Meeker, we don’t want a failed state or a war zone on our western border.”
Pappas laughed, as though I’d made a joke. “I bet. What if I told you that we’re less likely to end up that way than any other country on this continent?”
I gave him a wry look. “You’d have to to some very fast talking to convince me of that. With that kind of armament, I don’t see how you could expect to defeat a country with a modern military.”
“We don’t have to defeat them,” he said at once. “All we have to do is bankrupt them.”
I stared at him.
“War’s not cheap,” he went on. “Modern high-tech warfare, square and cube that. Half the reason the old United States collapsed was the amount of money it poured into trying to stay ahead of everybody else’s military technology. I’m not going to ask you how much the Atlantic Republic has to pay each year for drones, robot tanks, helicopter gunships, cruise missiles, and the information systems you need to run all of it; you know as well as I do that it’s a big chunk of the national budget, and I’d be willing to make a bet that you have to skimp on the rest of your military budget to make up for it—meaning that your ordinary grunts don’t have the training or the morale they might have.”
I didn’t answer. Outside the window, commercial buildings gave way to a residential neighborhood dotted with gardens and parks.
“So you’ve got a lot of money sunk in military hardware. Let’s say you guys decided to invade us.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I told him.
“Just for example.” He waved the objection away with one massive hand. “You send in your drones and robot tanks and helicopter gunships, seize Toledo and wherever else your general staff thinks is strategic enough to merit it, and dump a bunch of infantry to hold onto those places. You’ve won, right? Except that that’s when the fun begins.
“All that light infantry and field artillery you mentioned—it’s still there, distributed all over the country, and it’s not dependent on any kind of central command.  It’s got first-rate training, and most of the training is oriented to one thing and one thing only: insurgent operations. So thirty minutes after your drones cross the border, you’re dealing with a full-on, heavily armed insurgency with prepared positions and ample firepower, in every single county of the Lakeland Republic. However long you want to hold on, we can hold on longer, and every day of it costs you a lot more than it costs us. Oh, and a lot of the training our troops get focuses on taking out your high-tech assets with inexpensive munitions. So it’s the same kind of black hole the old United States kept getting itself into—no way to win, and the bills just keep piling up until you go home.”
“I’m a little surprised you’re telling me all this,” I said after a moment.
“Don’t be. We want people outside to know exactly what they’re up against if they invade.” He gestured out the window. “Check that out.”
We were still in the residential part of Toledo, the same patchwork of houses, gardens, and little business districts I’d seen on the way from Pittsburgh, but something new cut across the landscape: a canal. It didn’t have water in it yet, and so I could see that the sides were lined with big slabs of concrete that must have been salvaged from a prewar freeway.
“We’re putting those in everywhere that the landscape permits,” Pappas said. “Partly that’s economic—canals are cheaper to run than any other transport—but it’s also military. You want to try to cross one of those in a tank, be my guest. There’s a lot of that sort of thing. Every county is its own military unit and builds bunkers, prepared positions, tank traps, you name it. Since we’re not interested in invading anybody else, we can put a lot of resources into that.”
I decided to take a risk. “If you’re not interested in invading anybody else, why did your people put so much work into getting detailed topo maps of our territory back before the border opened?”
The bushy eyebrows went up. “You know about that.”
I nodded. “We got lucky.”
“Gotcha,” Pappas said. “Did you hear much about the other side of our dust-up with the Confederacy in ‘49?” I motioned for him to go on, and he grinned. “We sent teams across the border into their territory to mess with their infrastructure. Bridges, power lines, levees, you name it—anything that would raise the price tag. We even got a couple of teams onto Brazilian territory to do the same thing; we would have done more of that if the war hadn’t ended when it did.”
“So it’s all about economics,” I said.
“Of course. You know how Clausewitz said that war’s a continuation of politics by other means? He got that half right. It’s also a continuation of economics—and the last guy standing is the one who can afford to keep fighting longest.”
I nodded. Outside the window, the first of the farms and fields were coming into view, brown with stubble or green with cover crops for overwintering.
“All across this country,” Pappas said then, “we’ve got young men and women doing their two year stints in the army, and showing up for two weeks a year afterwards as long as they can still shoulder a gun—and there’s a good reason for that. This country got the short end of the stick for decades back before the Second Civil War, then got the crap pounded out of it during the fighting, and then—well, I could go on. We found out the hard way what happens when you let some jerk in a fancy white house a thousand miles away decide for you how you’re going to run your life. That’s why President Meeker’s not much more than a referee to ride herd on the parties in the legislature; that’s why each county makes so many of its own decisions by vote—and it’s why all the people you’re going to see tomorrow are putting a nice fall weekend into shooting at drones.”
“Is that what’s on the schedule for tomorrow?”
The bushy eyebrows went up again. “Melanie didn’t tell you?” Suddenly he chuckled, rubbed his big hands together. “Oh man. You’re going to get an education.”

The Shadows in the Cave

Wed, 2015-11-25 17:01
I had intended this week’s post to be the next episode in the Retrotopia narrative, chronicling Peter Carr’s meeting with the irrepressible Col. Tom Pappas of the Lakeland Republic Army, and the trip out to Defiance County for the annual drone shoot, but that will have to wait another week. No, I haven’t decided to comment instead on the recent spate of terror attacks in France.  As people in a variety of other corners of the world have pointed out, identical outrages happen all over the Third World every few days.  The only reason this latest horror has gotten so much air time is that it affected people in one of the world’s privileged countries instead.
Nor am I going to be devoting this week’s post to the latest, extremely troubling round of news from the climate change front—though that’s going to get a post to itself down the road a bit, when I’ve had time to do a little more research. That’s a far bigger story than the terror attacks in Paris, though of course it’s not getting anything like as much attention in the media.  From the beginning of serious salt water infiltration into South Florida’s aquifers, through ominously bulging sediments in Arctic Ocean shallows, to an assortment of truly frightening data points from Greenland, it’s clear that we’ve passed the threshold from “something may happen someday” to “something is happening now”—a transition that probably has quite a bit to do with the increasingly shrill tone of climate-change denialist rhetoric just now, and even more to do with the increasingly plaintive tone of those activists who still insist that everything can be fixed if we all just join hands and sing “Kum ba ya” one more time.
No, this week’s post is going to explore a topic that’s far less important in the overall scheme of things, though it’s not without its relevance to the crisis of our age. I want to talk about the reaction I fielded in response to last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, which was an exploration of our culture’s taboo against choosing not to use the latest technologies.
I expected that post to field its share of outraged denunciations, and it certainly did. What I didn’t expect was that it would receive more comments than any other post in the history of The Archdruid Report, and the vast majority of those comments would agree heartily with the two points of that post. The first of these points is that there’s a significant number of Americans out there who, for one good reason or another, choose not to use cell phones, televisions, automobiles, microwave ovens, and an assortment of other currently fashionable technologies. The second is that there’s an even larger number of Americans out there who get really, really freaky about people who make such choices.
Some of the stories I heard from readers of my blog were absolute classics of the type. There was the couple who don’t enjoy television and so don’t own one, and had a relative ask them every single year, over and over again, if she could buy them a television for Christmas.  They said no thank you every single year, and finally she went out and bought them a television anyway because she just couldn’t stand the thought that they weren’t watching one. There was the coworker who plopped a laptop playing some sitcom or other right down on the lap of one of my readers and demanded that the reader watch it, right then and there, so that they would have something to talk about. There was the person who, offended by another reader’s lack of interest in television, finally shouted, “You must be living in a dream world!” Er, which of these people was spending four to six hours a day watching paid actors playing imaginary characters act out fictional events in contrived settings?
Televisions were far from the only focus of this sort of technobullying. Other readers reported getting similar reactions from other people because they didn’t happen to have, and weren’t interested in having, microwave ovens, smartphones, and so on down the list of currently fashionable trinkets. The stories are really quite eye-opening, and not in a good way. Forget about all the popular cant that insists that you’re free in the USA to make your own choices and have whatever lifestyle you want.  According to a significant fraction of Americans—and to judge from what my readers reported, that fraction isn’t limited to any one class, income level, or region of the country—the only freedom you’re supposed to exercise, when it comes to technology, is that of choosing which brand label will be slapped on each item in the officially approved list of devices you’re expected to own.
The prevalence of technobullying and technoshaming in today’s America is a fascinating point, and one we’ll explore in a few moments, with the able assistance of the denunciations flung at last week’s post by the minority of readers who reacted that way. What I want to consider first is the fact that so many people responded to last week’s post so positively. One blog in an uncrowded corner of the internet, written by an author whose day job as an archdruid locates him squarely on the outer fringes of contemporary American life, is very nearly the opposite of a statistically valid poll. Still, the sheer volume of the response makes me suspect that something significant is going on here.
By that I don’t mean that there’s some sort of groundswell of renunciation, leading people to walk away from technologies in the same spirit that led medieval ascetics to don hair shirts and flog themselves for the good of their souls. That’s one of the common stereotypes directed at those of us who aren’t interested in the latest technotrash, and it completely misses what’s actually going on. I’ll use myself as an example here. I don’t own a television—I haven’t owned one in my adult life—and it’s not because I have some moral or political objection to televisions, or because I’m into self-denial, or what have you. I don’t own a television because I find watching television about as enticing as eating a bowl of warm snot.
It’s not the programming, either—that’s another of the standard stereotypes, that the only thing one can find objectionable about television is the programming, and it’s as inaccurate as the rest.  To me, quite simply, the activity of watching little colored shapes jerk around on a screen is boring and irritating, not relaxing and enjoyable, no matter what the little colored shapes are supposed to be doing. Yes, I grew up with a television in the house.  I experienced plenty of it back in the day, and I have zero interest in experiencing any more, because I don’t like it. It really is that simple. It’s that simple for others as well: they don’t find this or that technology enjoyable, useful, or relevant to their lifestyles, and so they’ve chosen to do something else with their money and time. Shouldn’t so simple and personal a choice be their own business, and nobody else’s?
To judge by the reactions that those who make such choices routinely field, apparently not. The pushbacks discussed in the comments page last week range from the sort of in-your-face confrontations discussed above to a much-forwarded article in I forget which online rag, where somebody was airily announcing that he wasn’t interested in being friends with somebody unless he could text some vacuous comment about lunch to the other person at 2:15 and get a response by 2:30. (My readers and I are good with that—somebody who insists on getting immediate feedback for their random outbursts of mental flatulence isn’t somebody we want as a friend, either.) Then there were the indignant responses to last week’s post, which belong in a category by themselves.
I’m sorry to say that my favorite diatribe didn’t show up in the comment queue for The Archdruid Report. It appeared instead on one of the many other websites that carry my weekly posts, and it insisted, among several other less juicy bits, that my lack of enthusiasm for television obviously meant that I was conspiring to deprive everyone else of their teevees. You’ve got to admit that for sheer giddy delirium, that one’s hard to beat. By the same logic, if I dislike peanuts—as in fact I do—I must be committed to some kind of anti-peanut crusade devoted to eradicating the entire species. Not so;  Arachis hypogaeais welcome to live and thrive, for all I care, and my fellow hominids are equally welcome to eat as much of its produce as they happen to desire.  In fact, they can divide my share among them. The only thing I ask in return is that nobody expect me to eat the things myself.
The same rule applies equally to television, as it does to a great many other things. Like most human beings, I enjoy some things and don’t enjoy others, and in the vast majority of these cases, nobody feels particularly threatened by the fact that I don’t like something they do, and avoid it for that sensible reason. For this one commenter, at least, that obviously wasn’t the case, and it’s worth reflecting on the vast personal insecurities that must have driven such a bizarre reaction. Still, that was one of a kind, so we’ll pass on to the others.
A theme that showed up rather more often in the hate mail responding to last week’s post was the insistence that if I don’t have a television, a microwave, or a cell phone, I’m a hypocrite if I have an internet connection. I encourage my readers to think about that claim for a moment. I suppose a case could be made that if my lack of interest in having a television, a microwave, or a cell phone was motivated by the kind of passion for hair-shirt asceticism mentioned above, and I had an internet connection, I could be accused of the kind of slacking that used to get you thrown out of the really top-notch hermitages. From any other perspective, it’s a triumph of absurdity. If people are in fact allowed to choose, from among the currently available technologies, those that make them happiest—as the cheerleaders of the consumer economy delight to insist—what could possibly be wrong with choosing some old technologies and some newer ones, if that’s the mix you prefer?
Then there are the people whose response to the technology of an older time is to yammer endlessly about whatever bad things happened in those days, even when the bad things in question had nothing to do with the technology and vice versa. People like the couple I discussed in last week’s post, who prefer Victorian furnishings and clothing to their modern equivalents, get this sort of bizarre non sequitur all the time, but variants of it turned up in my inbox last week as well. Here again, there’s some heavy-duty illogic involved. If a technology that was invented and used in the 1850s, say, is permanently tarred with the various social evils of that era, and ought to be rejected because those evils happened, wouldn’t that also mean that the internet is just as indelibly tarred with the social evils of the modern era, and ought to be discarded because bad things are happening in the world today? What’s sauce for the goose, after all, is sauce for the gander...
Finally, there’s the capstone of the whole edifice of unreason, the insistence that anybody who doesn’t use the latest, hottest technotrash wants to go “back to the caves,” or to even take all of humanity to that much-denounced destination. “The caves” have a bizarre gravitational effect on the imagination of a certain class of modern thinkers.  Everything that’s not part of the latest assortment of glitzy technogimmicks, in their minds, somehow morphs into the bearskin kilts and wooden clubs that so many of us still, despite well over a century of detailed archeological evidence, insist on pushing onto our prehistoric ancestors.
When people of this kind archly dismiss people like the Chrismans, the neo-Victorian couple just mentioned, as going “back to the caves,” they’re engaged in a very interesting kind of absurdity. Do cavemen and Victorians belong on the same level? Sure, cavemen had flush toilets and central heating, daily newspapers and public libraries, not to mention factories, railways, global maritime trade, a telegraph network covering much of the planet’s land surface, and a great deal more of the same kind! That’s absurd, of course. It’s even more absurd to insist that people who simply don’t enjoy using this or that technology, and so don’t use it, are going back to “the caves”—but I can promise you, dear reader, from my own personal experience, that if you show a lack of interest in any piece of fashionable technology, you’ll have this phrase thrown at you.
That happens because “the caves” aren’t real. They aren’t, for example, the actual cave-shrines of the Magdalenian people who lived fifteen thousand years ago, whose lifestyles were quite similar to those of Native Americans before Columbus, and who used to go deep into the caves of Europe to paint sacred images that still stun the viewer today by their beauty and artistry. “The caves” of contemporary rhetoric, rather, are thoughtstopping abstractions, bits of verbal noise that people have been taught to use so they don’t ask inconvenient questions about where this thing called “progress” is taking us and whether any sane person would actually want to go there. Flattening out the entire complex richness of the human past into a single cardboard bogeyman labeled “the caves” is one way to do that.  So is papering over the distinctly ugly future we’re making for ourselves with a screen shot or two from a Jetsons cartoon and a gaudy banner saying “We’re headed for the stars!”
It’s really rather fascinating, all things considered, that the image of the cave should have been picked up for that dubious purpose. Not that long ago, most literate people in the Western world tended to have a very different image come to mind when someone mentioned caves. That was courtesy of a man named Aristocles of Athens, who lived a little more than 2300 years ago and whose very broad shoulders got him the nickname Plato. In the longest, most influential, and most problematic of his works, usually called The Republic—a bad choice, as this word nowadays has connotations of rights under law that the Greek title Politeia lacks—he framed his discussion of the gap between perception and reality with an arresting image.
Imagine, Plato says, that we are all shackled in a cave, unable to turn our heads to either side. All we can see are dark shapes that move this way and that on the flat wall of the cave in front of us. Those dark shapes are all we know.  They are our reality.
Now imagine that one of these prisoners manages to get loose from his shackles, and turns away from the cave wall and the dark shapes on it. He’s in for a shock, because what he sees when he turns around is a bonfire, and people moving objects in front of the flames so that the objects cast shadows on the cave wall. Everything he thought was reality is simply a shadow cast by these moving objects.
If the prisoner who’s gotten loose pays attention, furthermore, he might just notice that the cave isn’t limited to the bonfire, the prisoners, the objects casting the shadows and the people who manipulate those objects. Off past the bonfire, on one side of the cave, the floor slopes upwards, and in the distance is a faint light that doesn’t seem to come from the fire at all. If our escaped prisoner is brave enough, he might decide to go investigate that light. As he does so, the bonfire and the shadows slip into the darkness behind him, and the light ahead grows brighter and clearer.
Then, if he’s brave enough and keeps going, he steps out of the cave and into the sunlight. That’s not an easy thing, either, because the light is so much more intense than the dim red glow in the cave that for a while, he can’t see a thing. He stumbles, rubs his eyes, tries to find his bearings, and discovers that the detailed knowledge he had of the way shadows moved on the cave wall won’t help him at all in this new, blazingly bright realm. He has to discard everything he thinks he knows, and learn the rules of an unfamiliar world.
Bit by bit, though, he accomplishes this. His eyes adapt to the sunlight, he learns to recognize objects and to sense things—color, for example, and depth—which didn’t exist in the shadow-world he thought he inhabited when he was still a prisoner in the cave. Eventually he can even see the sun, and know where the light that illumines the real world actually comes from.
Now, Plato says, imagine that he decides to go back into the cave to tell the remaining prisoners what he’s seen. To begin with, it’s going to be rough going, because his eyes have adapted to the brilliant daylight and so he’s going to trip and stumble on the way down. Once he gets there, anything he says to the prisoners is going to be dismissed as the most consummate rubbish:  what is this nonsense about color and depth, and a big bright glowing thing that crosses something called the sky? What’s more, the people to whom he’s addressing his words are going to misunderstand them, thinking that they’re about the shadow-world in front of their eyes—after all, that’s the only reality they know—and they’re going to decide that he must be an idiot because nothing he says has anything to do with the shadow-world.
Plato didn’t mention that the prisoners might respond by trying to drag the escapee back into line with them and bully him into putting his shackles back on, though that’s generally the way such things work out in practice. Plato also never saw a television, which is unfortunate in a way—if he had, he could have skipped the complicated setup with the bonfire and the people waving around objects that cast shadows, and simply said, “Imagine that we’re all watching television in a dark room.”
Now of course Plato had his own reasons for using the cave metaphor, and developed it in directions that aren’t relevant to this week’s post. The point I want to make here is that every technology is a filter that shapes the way we experience and interact with the world. In some cases, such as television, the filtering effect is so drastic it’s hard not to see—unless, that is, you don’t want to see it.  In other cases, it’s subtle. There are valid reasons people might want to use one filter rather than another, or to set aside an assortment of filters in order to get a clearer view of some part of the world or their lives.
There are also, as already noted, matters of personal choice. Some of us prefer sun and wind and depth and color to the play of shadows on the walls of the cave. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to drag those who don’t share that preference out into the blinding light, or that we’re going to turn ourselves into the Throg the Cave Man shadow that’s being waved around so enthusiastically on one corner of the cave wall. It does mean—or so the response to last week’s post suggests—that a significant number of people are losing interest in the shadow-play and clambering up the awkward but rewarding journey into the sunlight and the clean cool air, and it may just mean as well that those who try to bully them into staying put and staring at shadows may have less success than they expect.
******************On an entirely personal note, I’m pleased to report that Founders House Publishing has just brought out a new edition of my first science fiction novel, The Fires of Shalsha. It’s closer to mainstream SF than anything else I’ve written—it’s even set on another planet—but fans of my subsequent novels, Star’s Reach and Twilight’s Last Gleaming, will find it an enjoyable read. Copies can be ordered here.

The Heresy of Technological Choice

Wed, 2015-11-18 16:08
Among the interesting benefits of writing a blog like this, focusing as it does on the end of industrial civilization, are the opportunities it routinely affords for a glimpse at the stranger side of the collective thinking of our time. The last few weeks have been an unusually good source of that experience, as a result of one detail of the Retrotopia narrative I’ve been developing in the posts here.
The detail in question is the system by which residents of my fictional Lakeland Republic choose how much infrastructure they want to have and, not incidentally, to pay for via their local tax revenues. It’s done on a county-by-county basis by majority vote. The more infrastructure you want, the higher your taxes are; the more infrastructure you can do without, the less of your income goes to the county to pay for it. There are five levels, called tiers, and each one has a notional date connected to it: thus tier five has the notional date of 1950, and corresponds to the infrastructure you’d expect to find in a county in the Midwestern states of the US in that year: countywide electrical, telephone, water, and sewer service; roads and related infrastructure throughout the county capable of handling heavy automobile use; and mass transit—specifically, streetcars—in the towns.
The other tiers have less infrastructure, and correspondingly lower taxes. Tier four has a notional date of 1920, tier three of 1890, tier two of 1860, and tier one of 1830. In each case, the infrastructure you’d find in such a county is roughly what you’d find in a midwestern American county in that year. With tier one, your county infrastructure consists of dirt roads and that’s about it. All the other functions of county government exist in tier one, tier five, and everything in between; there are courts, police, social welfare provisions for those who are unable to take care of themselves, and so forth—all the things you would expect to find in any midwestern county in the US at any point between 1830 and 1950. That’s the tier system:  one small detail of the imaginary future I’ve been sketching here.
Before we go on, I’d like my readers to stop and notice that the only things that are subject to the tier system are the elements of local infrastructure that are paid for by local tax revenues. If you live in a county that voted to adopt a certain tier level, that tells you what kind of  infrastructure will be funded by local tax revenues, and therefore what the tax bills are going to be like. That’s all it tells you. In particular, the tier system doesn’t apply to privately owned infrastructure—for example, railroads in the Lakeland Republic are privately owned, and so every county, whatever its tier, has train stations in any town where paying passengers and freight may be found in sufficient quantity to make it worth a railroad’s while to stop there.
The tier system also, and crucially, doesn’t determine what kind of technology the residents can use. If you live in a tier one county, you can use all the electrical appliances you can afford to buy, as long as you generate the electricity yourself. Some technologies that are completely dependent on public infrastructure aren’t going to work in a low tier county—for example, without paved roads, gas stations, huge government subsidies for petroleum production, military bases all over the Middle East, and a great deal more, cars aren’t much more than oversized paperweights—but that’s built into the technology in question, not any fault of the tier system. Furthermore, the tier system doesn’t determine social customs and mores.  If you live in a tier four county, for example, no law requires you to dress in a zoot suit or a flapper dress, drink bootleg liquor, and say things like “Hubba hubba” and “Twenty-three skidoo!” This may seem obvious, but trust me, it’s apparently far from obvious to a certain portion of my readers.
I can say this because, ever since the tier system first got mentioned in the narrative, I’ve fielded a steady stream of comments from people who wanted to object to the tier system because it forcibly deprives people of access to technology. I had one reader insist that the tier system would keep farmers in tier one counties from using plastic sheeting for hoop houses, for example, and another who compared the system to the arrangements in former Eastern Bloc nations, where the Communist Party imposed rigid restrictions on what technologies people could have. The mere facts that plastic sheeting for hoop houses isn’t infrastructure paid for by tax revenues, and that the tier system doesn’t impose rigid restrictions on anybody—on the contrary, it allows the voters in each county to choose for themselves how much infrastructure they’re going to pay for—somehow never found their way into the resulting diatribes.
What made all this even more fascinating to me is that no matter how often I addressed the points in question, and pointed out that the tier system just allows local voters to choose what infrastructure gets paid for their by tax money, a certain fraction of readers just kept rabbiting on endlessly along the same lines. It wasn’t that they were disagreeing with what I was saying. It’s that they were acting as though I had never said anything to address the subject at all, even when I addressed it to their faces, and nothing I or anyone else could say was able to break through their conviction that in imagining the tier system, I must be talking about some way to deprive people of technology by main force.
It was after the third or fourth round of comments along these lines, I think it was, that a sudden sense of deja vu reminded me that I’d seen this same sort of curiously detached paralogic before.
Longtime readers of this blog will remember how, some years ago, I pointed out in passing that the survival of the internet in the deindustrial age didn’t depend on whether there was some technically feasible way to run an internet in times of energy and resource limits, much less on how neat we think the internet is today. Rather, I suggested, its survival in the future would depend on whether it could make enough money to cover its operating and maintenance costs, and on whether it could successfully keep on outcompeting less complex and expensive ways of providing the same services to its users. That post got a flurry of responses from the geekoisie, all of whom wanted to talk exclusively about whether there was some technically feasible way to run the internet in a deindustrial world, and oh, yes, how incredibly neat the internet supposedly is.
What’s more, when I pointed out that they weren’t discussing the issues I had raised, they didn’t argue with me or try to make an opposing case.  They just kept on talking more and more loudly about the  technical feasibility of various gimmicks for a deindustrial internet, and by the way, did we mention yet how unbelievably neat the internet is? It was frankly rather weird, and I don’t mean that in a good way.  It felt at times as though I’d somehow managed to hit the off switch on a dozen or so intellects, leaving their empty husks to lurch mindlessly through a series of animatronic talking points with all the persistence and irrelevance of broken records.
It took a while for me to realize that the people who were engaged in this bizarre sort of nonresponse understood perfectly well what I was talking about. They knew at least as well as I did that the internet is the most gargantuan technostructure in the history of our species, a vast, sprawling, unimaginably costly, and hopelessly unsustainable energy- and resource-devouring behemoth that survives only because a significant fraction of the world’s total economic activity goes directly and indirectly toward its upkeep. They knew about the slave-worked open pit mines, the vast grim factories run by sweatshop labor, and the countless belching smokestacks that feed its ravenous appetite for hardware and power; they also know about the constellations of data centers scattered across the world that keep it running, each of which uses as much energy as a small city, and each of which has to have one semi-truck after another pull up to the loading dock every single day to offload pallets of brand new hard drives and other hardware, in order to replace those that will burn out the next day.
They knew all this, and they knew, or at least suspected, just how little of it will be viable in a future of harsh energy and resource constraints.  They simply didn’t want to think about that, much less talk about it, and so they babbled endlessly about other things in a frantic attempt to drown out a subject they couldn’t bear to hear discussed openly.
I’m pretty sure that this is what’s going on in the present case, too, and an interesting set of news stories from earlier this year points up the unspoken logic behind it.
Port Townsend is a pleasant little town in Washington State, perched on a bluff above the western shores of Puget Sound. Due to the vagaries of the regional economy, it basically got bypassed by the twentieth century, and much of the housing stock dates from the Victorian era. It so happens that one couple who live there find Victorian technology, clothing, and personal habits more to their taste than the current fashions in these things, and they live, as thoroughly as they can, a Victorian lifestyle. The wife of the couple, Sarah Chrisman, recently wrote a book about her experiences, and got her canonical fifteen minutes of fame on the internet and the media as a result.
You might think, dear reader, that the people of Port Townsend would treat this as merely a harmless eccentricity, or even find it pleasantly amusing to have a couple in Victorian cycling clothes riding their penny-farthing bicycles on the city streets. To some extent, you’d be right, but it’s the exceptions that I want to discuss here. Ever since they adopted their Victorian lifestyle, the Chrismans have been on the receiving end of constant harassment by people who find their presence in the community intolerable. The shouted insults, the in-your-face confrontations, the death threats—they’ve seen it all. What’s more, the appearance of Sarah Chrisman’s book and various online articles related to it fielded, in response, an impressive flurry of spluttering online denunciations, which insisted among other things that the fact that she prefers to wear long skirts and corsets somehow makes her personally responsible for all the sins that have ever been imputed to the Victorian era.
Why? Why the fury, the brutality, and the frankly irrational denunciations directed at a couple whose lifestyle choices have got to count well up there among the world’s most harmless hobbies?
The reason’s actually very simple. Sarah Chrisman and her husband have transgressed one of the modern world’s most rigidly enforced taboos. They’ve shown in the most irrefutable way, by personal example, that the technologies each of us use in our own lives are a matter of individual choice.
You’re not supposed to say that in today’s world. You’re not even supposed to think it. You’re allowed, at most, to talk nostalgically about how much more pleasant it must have been not to be constantly harassed and annoyed by the current round of officially prescribed technologies, and squashed into the Procrustean bed of the narrow range of acceptable lifestyles that go with them. Even that’s risky in many circles these days, and risks fielding a diatribe from somebody who just has to tell you, at great length and with obvious irritation, all about the horrible things you’d supposedly suffer if you didn’t have the current round of officially prescribed technologies constantly harassing and annoying you.
The nostalgia in question doesn’t have to be oriented toward the past. I long ago lost track of the number of people I’ve heard talk nostalgically about what I tend to call the Ecotopian future, the default vision of a green tomorrow that infests most minds on the leftward end of things. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last forty years, you already know every detail of the Ecotopian future.  It’s the place where wind turbines and solar panels power everything, everyone commutes by bicycle from their earth-sheltered suburban homes to their LEED-certified urban workplaces, everything is recycled, and social problems have all been solved because everybody, without exception, has come to embrace the ideas and attitudes currently found among upper-middle-class San Francisco liberals.
It’s far from rare, at sustainability-oriented events, to hear well-to-do attendees waxing rhapsodically about how great life will be when the Ecotopian future arrives. If you encounter someone engaging in that sort of nostalgic exercise, and are minded to be cruel, ask the person who’s doing it whether he (it’s usually a man) bicycles to work, and if not, why not. Odds are you’ll get to hear any number of frantic excuses to explain why the lifestyle that everyone’s going to love in the Ecotopian future is one that he can’t possibly embrace today. If you want a look behind the excuses and evasions, ask him how he got to the sustainability-oriented event you’re attending. Odds are that he drove his SUV, in which there were no other passengers, and if you press him about that you can expect to see the dark heart of privilege and rage that underlies his enthusiastic praise of an imaginary lifestyle that he would never, not even for a moment, dream of adopting himself.
I wish I were joking about the rage. It so happens that I don’t have a car, a television, or a cell phone, and I have zero interest in ever having any of these things. My defection from the officially prescribed technologies and the lifestyles that go with them isn’t as immediately obvious as Sarah Chrisman’s, so I don’t take as much day to day harassment as she does. Still, it happens from time to time that somebody wants to know if I’ve seen this or that television program, and in the conversations that unfold from such questions it sometimes comes out that I don’t have a television at all.
Where I now live, in an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, that revelation rarely gets a hostile response, and it’s fairly common for someone else to say, “Good for you,” or something like that. A lot of people here are very poor, and thus have a certain detachment from technologies and lifestyles they know perfectly well they will never be able to afford. Back when I lived in prosperous Left Coast towns, on the other hand, mentioning that I didn’t own a television routinely meant that I’d get to hear a long and patronizing disquisition about how I really ought to run out and buy a TV so I could watch this or that or the other really really wonderful program, in the absence of which my life must be intolerably barren and incomplete.
Any lack of enthusiasm for that sort of disquisition very reliably brought out a variety of furiously angry responses that had precisely nothing to do with the issue at hand, which is that I simply don’t enjoy the activity of watching television. Oh, and it’s not the programming I find unenjoyable—it’s the technology itself; I get bored very quickly with the process of watching little colored images jerking about on a glass screen, no matter what the images happen to be. That’s another taboo, by the way. It’s acceptable in today’s America to grumble about what’s on television, but the technology itself is sacrosanct; you’re not allowed to criticize it, much less to talk about the biases, agendas, and simple annoyances hardwired into television as a technological system. If you try to bring any of that up, people will insist that you’re criticizing the programming; if you correct them, they’ll ignore the correction and keep on talking as though the programs on TV are the only thing under discussion.
A similar issue drives the bizarre paralogic surrounding the nonresponses to the tier system discussed above. The core premises behind the tier system in my narrative are, first, that people can choose the technological infrastructure they have, and have to pay for—and second, that some of them, when they consider the costs and benefits involved, might reasonably decide that an infrastructure of dirt roads and a landscape of self-sufficient farms and small towns is the best option. To a great many people today, that’s heresy of the most unthinkable sort.  The easiest way to deal with the heresy in question, for those who aren’t interested in thinking about it, is to pretend that nothing so shocking has been suggested at all, and force the discussion into some less threatening form as quickly as possible. Redefining it in ways that erase the unbearable idea that technologies can be chosen freely, and just as freely rejected, is quite probably the easiest way to do that.
I’d encourage those of my readers who aren’t blinded by the terror of intellectual heresy to think, and think hard, about the taboo against technological choice—the insistence that you cannot, may not, and must not make your own choices when it comes to whatever the latest technological fad happens to be, but must do as you’re told and accept whatever technology the consumer society hands you, no matter how dysfunctional, harmful, or boring it turns out to be. That taboo is very deeply ingrained, far more potent than the handful of relatively weak taboos our society still applies to such things as sexuality, and most of the people you know obey it so unthinkingly that they never even notice how it shapes their behavior. You may not notice how it shapes your behavior, for that matter; the best way to find out is to pick a technology that annoys, harms, or bores you, but that you use anyway, and get rid of it.
Those who take that unthinkable step, and embrace the heresy of technological choice, are part of the wave of the future. In a world of declining resource availability, unraveling economic systems, and destabilizing environments, Sarah Chrisman and the many other people who make similar choices—there are quite a few of them these days, and more of them with each year that passes—are making a wise choice. By taking up technologies and lifeways from less extravagant eras, they’re decreasing their environmental footprints and their vulnerability to faltering global technostructures, and they’re also contributing to one of the crucial tasks of our age: the rediscovery of ways of being human that don’t depend on hopelessly unsustainable levels of resource and energy consumption.
The heresy of technological choice is a door. Beyond it lies an unexplored landscape of possibilities for the future—possibilities that very few people have even begun to imagine yet. My Retrotopia narrative is meant to glance over a very small part of that landscape. If some of the terrain it’s examined so far has been threatening enough to send some of its readers fleeing into a familiar sort of paralogic, then I’m confident that it’s doing the job I hoped it would do.

Retrotopia: A Visit to the Capitol

Wed, 2015-11-11 18:38
This is the ninth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator finally has his interview with the President of the Lakeland Republic, asks some hard questions, and prepares for a trip into unexpected territory.
***********Finch flagged down a cab as soon as we got out onto the sidewalk, and within a minute or two we were rolling through downtown at however many miles an hour a horse makes at a steady trot. Before too many more minutes had gone by, we were out from among the big downtown buildings, and the unfinished dome of the Capitol appeared on the skyline. Finch was in high spirits, talking about the compromise Meeker had brokered with the Restos, but I was too keyed up to pay much attention. A day and a half in the Lakeland Republic had answered a few of my questions and raised a good many more that I hadn’t expected to ask at all, and the meeting ahead would probably determine whether I’d be able to get the answers that mattered.
The cab finally rolled to a halt, and the cabbie climbed down from his perch up front and opened the door for us. I’d been so deep in my own thoughts for the last few blocks that I hadn’t noticed where we’d ended up, and I was startled to see the main entrance to the Capitol in front of me. I turned to Finch. “Here, rather than the President’s mansion?”
The intern gave me a blank look. “You mean like the old White House? We don’t have one of those. President Meeker has a house in town, just like any other politician.” I must have looked startled, because he went on earnestly:  “We dumped the whole imperial-executive thing after Partition. I’m surprised so many of the other republics kept it, after everything that happened.”
I nodded noncommittally as we walked up to the main entrance, climbed the stair, and went in. There were a couple of uniformed guards inside the outer doors, the first I’d seen anywhere in the Lakeland Republic, but they simply nodded a greeting to the two of us as we walked by.
We pushed open the inner doors and went into the rotunda. There was a temporary ceiling about forty feet overhead, and someone had taken the trouble to paint on it a trompe l’oeil view of the way the dome would look from beneath. In the middle of the floor was a block of marble maybe three feet on a side; I could barely see it because a dozen or so people were standing around it.  One of them, a stout and freckled blonde woman in a pale blue gingham dress, was saying something in a loud clear voice as we came through the doors:
“...do solemnly swear that, should I be elected to any official position, I will faithfully execute the laws of the Lakeland Republic regardless of my personal beliefs, and should I be unable to do so in good conscience, I will immediately resign my office, so help me my Lord and Savior Jesus.” Three sudden blue-white flashes told of photos being taken, a little patter of applause echoed off the temporary ceiling, and then some of the people present got to work signing papers on the marble cube.
Finch led me around the group to a door on the far side of the rotunda. “What was that about?” I asked him with a motion of my head toward the group around the cube.
“A candidate,” he explained as we went through the doors. “Probably running for some township or county office.  A lot of them like to do the ceremony here at the Capitol and get the pictures in their local papers. You can’t run for any elected position here unless you take that oath first—well, with or without the Jesus bit, or whatever else you prefer in place of it. There was a lot of trouble before the Second Civil War with people in government insisting that their personal beliefs trumped the duties of their office—”
“I’ve read about it.”
“So that went into our constitution. Break the oath and you do jail time for perjury.”
I took that in as we went down a corridor. On the far end was what looked like an ordinary front office with a young man perched behind a desk. “Hi, Gabe,” Finch said. 
“Hi, Mike.  This is Mr. Carr?”
“Yes. Mr. Carr, this is Gabriel Menendez, the President’s assistant secretary.”
We shook hands, and Menendez picked up a phone on his desk and asked, “Cheryl, is the boss free? Mr. Carr’s here.” A pause, then:  “Yes. I’ll send him right in.” He put down the phone and waved us to the door at the far end of the room. “He’ll see you now.”
We shed coats and hats at the coatrack on one side of the office, and went through the door. On the other side was another corridor, and beyond that was a circular room with doors opening off it in various directions. Off to the left an ornate spiral stair swept up and down to whatever was on the floors above and below.  To the right was another desk; the woman sitting at it nodded greetings to us and gestured to the central door. I followed Finch as he walked to the door, opened it, and said, “Mr. President? Mr. Carr.”
Isaiah Meeker, President of the Lakeland Republic, was standing at the far side of the room, looking out the window over the Toledo streetscape below.  He turned and came toward us as soon as Finch spoke. He looked older than the pictures I’d seen, the close-trimmed hair and iconic short beard almost white against the dark brown of his face. “Mr. Carr,” he said as we shook hands. “Pleased to meet you. I hope you haven’t been completely at loose ends this last day or so.” He gestured toward the side of the room. “Please have a seat.”
It wasn’t until I turned the direction he’d indicated that I realized there were more than the three of us in the room. A circle of chairs surrounded a low table there.  Melissa Berger and Fred Vanich, whom I’d met in the Toledo train station, were already  seated there, and so were two other people I didn’t know. “Stuart Macallan from the State Department,” Meeker said, making introductions. “Jaya Patel, from Commerce. Of course you’ve already met Melissa and Fred.”
Hands got shaken and I took a seat. Macallan was the assistant secretary of state for North American affairs, I knew, and Patel had an equivalent position on the trade end of things. “I apologize for the delay,” Meeker went on. “I imagine you know how it goes, though.”
“Of course.”
“And you seem to have put the time to good use—at least for our garment industry.”
That got a general chuckle, which I joined. “When in Rome,” I said. “I take it that’s not one of the things visitors usually do, though; Mr. Finch here looked right past me this morning.”
Finch reddened. “It really does vary,” Patel said. “Some of the diplomats and business executives we’ve worked with have taken to buying all their clothes here—we’ve even fielded inquiries about exporting garments for sale abroad. Still, most of our visitors seem to prefer their bioplastic.” Her fractional shrug showed, politely but eloquently, what she thought of that.
“To each their own,” said the President. “But you’ve had the chance to see a little of Toledo, and find out a few of the ways we do things here. I’d be interested to know your first reactions.”
I considered that, decided that a certain degree of frankness wasn’t out of place. “In some ways, impressed,” I said, “and in some ways disquieted. You certainly seem to have come through the embargo years in better shape than I expected—though I’m curious about how things will go now that the borders are open.”
“That’s been a matter of some concern here as well,” Meeker allowed. “That said, so far things seem to be going smoothly.”
Macallan paused just long enough to make sure his boss wasn’t going to say more, and then cleared his throat and spoke. “One of the things we hope might come out of your visit is a better relationship with the Atlantic Republic. I’m sure you know how fraught things were with Barfield and his people. If Ms. Montrose is willing to see things ratchet down to a more normal level, we’re ready to meet her halfway—potentially more than halfway.”
“That was quite an upset she pulled off in the election,” Meeker observed. “I hope you’ll pass on my personal congratulations.”
“I’ll gladly do that,” I said to the President, and then to Macallan:  “It’s certainly possible. I don’t happen to know her thoughts on that, but a lot of people on our side of the border are interested in seeing things change, and she’s got a stronger mandate than any president we’ve had since Partition. Still—” I shrugged. “We’ll have to see what happens after the inauguration.”
“Of course,” Macallan said.
“One thing we’d be particularly interested in seeing,” said Patel, “is a widening of the opportunities for trade. Obviously that’s going to be delicate—it’s a core policy of ours that the Republic has to be able to meet its essential needs from within its own borders, and I know that stance isn’t exactly popular in  global-trade circles. We’re not interested in global trade, but there are things your country produces that we’d like to be able to buy, and things we produce that you might like to buy in exchange.”
“Again,” I said, “we’ll have to see what happens—but I don’t know of any reason why that wouldn’t be a possibility.”
She nodded, and a brief silence passed. Vanich’s featureless voice broke it. “Mr. Carr,” he said, “you mentioned that you found some of the ways we do things here disquieting. I think we’d all be interested in hearing more about that, if you’re willing.”
Startled, I glanced across the table at him, but his face was as impenetrable as it had been the first time I’d seen him. I looked at the President, who seemed amused, and then nodded. “If you like,” I said. “At first it was mostly the—” I floundered for a term. “—deliberately retro, I suppose, quality of so much of what I’ve seen: the clothing, the technology, the architecture, all of it. I have to assume that that’s an intentional choice, connected to whatever’s inspired your Resto parties in politics.”
Meeker nodded. “Very much so.”
“But that’s not actually the thing I find most disquieting. What has me scratching my head is that your republic seems to have gone out of its way to ignore every single scrap of advice you must have gotten from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the other global financial institutions—in fact, from the entire economics profession—and despite that, you’ve apparently thrived.”
Meeker’s face broke into a broad smile. “Excellent,” he said. “Excellent. I’ll offer just one correction: we haven’t succeeded as well as we have despite ignoring the economic advice of the World Bank and so forth. We’ve done so precisely because we’ve ignored their advice.”
I gave him a long wary look, but his smile didn’t waver.
“Mr. Carr,” Melanie Berger said then, “Since the end of the embargo we’ve been approached four times by the World Bank and the IMF. I’ve been involved in the discussions that followed. Each time, their economists have made long speeches about how the way we do things is hopelessly inefficient, and how we’ve got to follow their advice and become more efficient. Each time, I’ve asked them to answer a simple question: ‘more efficient for what output in terms of what input?’ Not one of them has ever been able, or willing, to give me a straight answer.”
“I had a lecture on that subject yesterday from a bank officer,” I told her.
Her eyebrows went up, and then she smiled. “Not surprising. It’s something most people here know about, if they know anything at all about money.”
I nodded, taking that in. “So what you’re suggesting,” I said, as much to Meeker as to her, “is that the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue about economics.”
“Not quite,” said the President. “It’s just that our history has forced us to look at things in a somewhat different light, and prioritize different things.”
It was a graceful answer, and I nodded. “The question that comes to mind at this point,” he went on, “is whether there’s anything else you’d like to see, now that you know a little more about our republic.”
“As it happens, yes,” I said. “There is.”
He motioned me to go on.
“When I drew up the list we sent to your people right after the election, I didn’t know about the tier system, and I’ve got some serious questions about what things are like at the bottom rung of that ladder. I’ve read a little bit about the system, but I’m frankly skeptical that anybody in this day and age would voluntarily choose to live in the conditions of 1830.”
“That’s actually a common misconception,” Jaya Patel said, with the same you-don’t-get-it smile I’d seen more than once since my arrival. “The only thing the tier system determines is what infrastructure and services gets paid for out of tax revenues.”
“I saw a fair number of horsedrawn wagons on the train ride here,” I pointed out. “That’s not a matter of infrastructure.”
“Actually, it is,” she said. “Without a road system built to stand up to auto traffic, cars and trucks aren’t as efficient as wagons—” Her smile suddenly broadened. “—in terms of the total cost of haulage. That doesn’t keep people in tier one counties from having whatever personal technologies they want to have, and are willing and able to pay for.”
“Got it,” I said. “I’d still like to see how it works out in practice.”
“That’s easy enough,” the President said. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” I said, “though I know this may be further than you’re willing to go. I’d like to see something of your military.”
The room got very quiet. “I’d be interested,” Meeker said, “in knowing why.”
I nodded. “It seems to me that whatever you’ve achieved by this retro policy of yours comes at the cost of some frightful vulnerabilities. Ms. Berger told me a little about the war with the Confederacy and Brazil, and of course I knew a certain amount about that in advance. Obviously you won that round—but we both know that the Confederacy wasn’t in the best of shape in ‘49, and I really wonder about your ability to stand up to a modern high-tech military.”
“Like the Atlantic Republic’s?” Meeker asked, with a raised eyebrow.
I responded with a derisive snort. “With all due respect, I’m sure you know better than that. I’m thinking about what would happen if we ended up with a war zone or a failed state on our western borders.”
“Fair enough,” he said after a moment, “and I think we can satisfy you about that.”
“I’d like to suggest something,” Berger said to the President. “Defiance County is first tier.”
He glanced at her. “You’re thinking Hicksville?”
“Yes.”
“We’ll have to find someone.”
“Tom Pappas comes to mind,” she said.
The President’s face took on a slightly glazed expression, and then he laughed. “Yes, I think Tom will do. Thank you, Melanie.” He turned to me. “Have you made any plans for tomorrow?”
“Not yet.”
“Good. The day after tomorror, there’s a—military exercise, I think you would call it—in a first tier county a couple of hours from here by train. If you’re willing, I can have my staff make the arrangements for you to go there tomorrow, have a look around, stay the night, see how our military does things the next day, and then come back. Is that workable?”
“I’d welcome that,” I told him, wondering what I’d just gotten myself into.

Retrotopia: Inflows and Outputs

Wed, 2015-11-04 16:55
This is the eighth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator visits a city power plant that runs on an unexpected fuel source and a stock market subject to even less familiar rules...
 ***********By the time Michael Finch and I left the streetcar plant it was pushing eleven. “Where next?” I asked.
“We’re about four blocks from one of the municipal power plants,” the intern said. “I called ahead and arranged for a tour—that’ll take about an hour, and should still give us plenty of time for lunch. Ms. Berger said you’d  want a look at our electrical infrastructure.”
I nodded. “ Please. Electricity’s an ongoing problem back home.”
“It hasn’t always been that easy here, either,” Finch admitted. “Would you like to take a cab, or—”
“Four blocks? No, that’s walking distance.” From his expression, I gathered that wasn’t always the case with visitors from outside, but he brightened and led the way east toward the Maumee River. North of us I could see bridges arching across the river, and the unfinished dome of the Capitol rising up white above the brown and gray rooftops.
The power plant was another big brick building like the streetcar factory, and I looked in vain for smokestacks. Finch led me in through the office entrance, a double door in an ornate archway, and introduced us to the receptionist inside. A few moments later we were shown into the office of the plant manager, a stocky brown-skinned man with gray hair who came over to shake my hand.
“Jim Singletary,” he said. “Pleased to meet you. I don’t imagine you have anything like our facility over in the Atlantic Republic, so if there’s anything you want to know, just ask, okay?”
I assured him I would, and he led us out of the office. The corridor outside went straight back into the heart of the plant; at its far end, we went through a door onto a glassed-in balcony overlooking a big open room where six massive and complex machines rose up from a concrete floor.
“Down on the floor, you couldn’t hear a thing but the turbines,” he said. “That’s the business end of the plant—six combined cycle gas turbines driving our generators. We get almost sixty per cent efficiency in terms of electrical generation, more than that when you factor in the heat recycling to the facility. You know how a combined cycle turbine works?”
“More or less—you put the gases from the turbine through a heat exchanger, and use that to run a steam turbine off the leftover heat, don’t you?”
“Exactly. What comes out of the heat exchangers runs around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than enough to do something with. Here, a lot of it goes to heat the fermentation tanks.”
I wondered what he meant by that, but it didn’t take long to find out. Singletary led us along the balcony to another set of doors, and through them into another glassed-in balcony overlooking a double row of what looked a little like the top ends of a row of gargantuan pressure cookers.
“The fermentation tanks,” he said. “Feedstock goes in, methane and slurry come out. At any given time, eighteen tanks are in operation and the other six are being loaded or unloaded. This way, please.”
The balcony ended at another door, and a corridor led to the left. At its end was a balcony, this time open to the outside air. Below was the Maumee River, and a line of big blocky riverboats tied up along a quay. The one closest to us was having something unloaded from it through a big pipe.
“And there’s the feedstock that makes the whole thing work,” said Singletary. “I don’t recommend going down to the quayside—it’s pretty ripe.”
“What’s the feedstock?” I asked, even though I’d begun to guess the answer.
“Manure,” he said. “Cow, horse, sheep, human—you name it. We buy manure from an eight county region to supplement what gets produced here in Toledo.” I gave him a startled look, and he grinned. “Yep. If you’ve used the toilet since you got here, you’ve contributed to Toledo’s electricity supply.”
I laughed, and he went on. “We use a three-stage fermentation process to extract nearly seventy per cent of the carbon from the feedstock while the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium stay in the sludge. By the time it’s finished in the tanks it’s sterile enough you could rub it on an open wound. We use heat output from the turbines to dry it, and ship it back to farmers as fertilizer. So everyone’s happy.”
We went back to his office and I got a rundown on the economics of the plant. “How close do you get to breaking even, between feedstock costs and fertilizer sales?” I asked.
“Not as close as I’d like,” Singletary admitted. “Ever since the Maumee and Ohio canal got reopened, the farmers south of us can sell their feedstock to Dayton or Springfield—Lima’s tier three so it’s not in the market. North of us we’ve got Detroit and Ann Arbor to bid against; east there’s Cleveland, and the canal system west of the Maumee is still being rebuilt, so that’s out of the picture at the moment.”
“You depend on canals that much?”
“We can’t afford not to. Back in the early days, we used to ship in some feedstock by rail, but the costs are just too high these days. For any kind of bulk cargo, if you don’t have to worry about speed, canal shipping’s really the way to go.”
I asked a few more questions, and then we all shook hands and Finch and I headed out into the crisp fall air. “Interested in lunch?” he asked me; we discussed restaurants while waiting for the streetcar, and then rode it north into downtown. A bar and grill around the corner from the streetcar stop where we got off served up a very passable BLT sandwich, and then we wove our way through crowded sidewalks to the big stone building that housed the Toledo Stock Market.
“Vinny Patzek,” said the young man with black slicked-back hair who greeted us in a crowded office not far from the trading floor. “Pleased to meet you.” He had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, and looked like he spent a lot of his time running flat out from one corner of the building to another. “Any chance you know something about stock markets, Mr. Carr?”
“Actually, yes—I did two years on the NYSE floor before they moved it to Albany,” I said.
His face lit up. “Sweet. Okay, this is gonna be a lot less confusing to you than it is to most of the people we see here from outside. It’s not quite the same as what you’re used to, but the differences are mostly the technology, not the underlying setup. Come on.”
“I’ll leave you with Mr. Patzek for now,” Finch told me. “I promised Ms. Berger I’d check in after lunch and see how things are going at the Capitol.”
“Fair enough,” I said, and he left through one door while Patzek herded me out through another, down a corridor, and onto the trading floor of the stock exchange.
All things considered, it wasn’t much quieter than the turbine room of the power plant, but since I’d worked on a trading floor the noise and bustle actually meant something to me. There was a reader board, a big one, covering most of the far wall; it was mechanical, not digital, and flipped black or eye-burning yellow in little rectangular patches to spell out the latest prices. There were trading posts scattered across the floor, where specialists handled the buying and selling of shares. There were floor traders and floor brokers, enough of them to make the floor look crowded, and the featureless roar  made up of hundreds of voices shouting bids and offers.
“You probably still use computers in New York, right?” Patzek said in something that wasn’t quite a yell. “Here it’s all old-fashioned open outcry, with the same kind of hand signals you’d see in the Chi-town commodity pits. Lemme show you. All we need is an order.”
“I’ll take one share of Mikkelson Manufacturing,” I said.
He grinned. “You’re on.”
“You get a lot of small orders like that?”
“All the time. You get little old ladies, working guys, you name it, who save up the cash to buy a share or two once a month, that sort of thing, and come on down here to buy it in person.” He looked up at the reader board. “Mikkelson’s MIK—see it? Seventy-two even a share. Let’s go.”
We plunged into the crowd, and I managed to follow Patzek through the middle of it to one of the trading posts, where the traders and brokers looked even busier than they were elsewhere on the floor. Right in the middle of it, the yelling was loud enough I couldn’t make out a single word, just Patzek gesturing with a closed hand and then a raised index finger and shouting something that didn’t sound much like Mikkelson Industries. It only took about a minute, though, for the market to do what markets are supposed to do, and Patzek came out of the scrum with a big grin and an order written up on a pad of paper he’d extracted from one of his vest pockets.
“We’re good,” he said. “Seventy-two and a quarter—it’s pretty lively. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t hit seventy-five by closing. Let’s settle up back at the office; they’ll be sending the certificate there.”
We went back the way we’d came. The office, busy as it was, seemed almost unnervingly quiet after the roar of the trading floor. “So that’s how it’s done,” said Patzek. “A little different, I bet.”
“Not as much as it used to be,” I said. “When I first got on the NYSE floor, there were only a couple of dozen floor traders left, and it was as quiet as a library most days. With the satellite situation and some of the other problems lately, a lot of brokerages are putting trades back on the floor again. But of course it’s still done with handheld computers, not the sort of thing you’ve got in there.”
Patzek nodded. “The way I heard it, there were handhelds on the floor in the early days after Partition, but the first time the outside tried regime change here they hacked the system and crashed it, and the exchange just let it drop. Computers are just too easy to hack. Floor traders? Not so much.”
“I bet,” I said, laughing.
I wrote a check for the price of the share, then, and filled out a couple of forms covering my side of the transaction. When I got to the form for dividend payouts, though, I looked up at Patzek. “I’ll have to make some arrangements back home before I can finish this.” He nodded, and I went on. “What kind of dividends does Mikkelson pay these days?”
“Five, maybe six percent a year. Not bad, especially since it’s tax free.”
That startled me. “Mikkelson, or dividends in general?”
“Dividends in general. They count as earned income, like wages, salaries, royalties, that sort of thing. Most other investments, you’re gonna pay tax, and if you sell that share and make a profit on it, that’s speculative income and you’re gonna get whacked.”
“So earned income is tax free, but investment income isn’t.”
“Yeah—again, except for dividends.”
I remembered what Elaine Chu had said about taxes back at the Mikkelson plant. “So you tax what you want to discourage, not what you want to encourage.”
“Heck if I know,” said Patzek. “You’ll have to ask the politicians about that.”
A moment later a messenger came in through the door we’d used, plopped a manila folder on one of the desks, and ducked back out. Half a dozen people converged on the folder; Patzek waited his turn, and came back with a sheet of stiff paper printed in ornate script.
“Here you go,” he said. “One share of Mikkelson Manufacturing. Congratulations—you’re now a limited partner with Janice Mikkelson.”
I gave him a startled look, then glanced at the certificate. I’d read about printed stock certificates, but never actually handled one, so it took me a moment to sort through the fancy printing and read the line that mattered. Sure enough, it read MIKKELSON MANUFACTURING LLP.
“Limited liability partnership,” I guessed. “So it’s not a corporation?”
“Nah, it’s a little different here. Back in the day—and we’re talking before the First Civil War, forget about the Second—corporations had to be chartered by the legislature, for some fixed number of years, and only for some kind of public benefit, not just because somebody wanted to make a few bucks. After all the problems the old Union had with corporations claiming to be people and all that, we up and drew a line under that, and went back to the original laws. Here, if a business wants to sell stock, it becomes a limited liability partnership. The limited partners are only on the hook to the value of their stock holdings, but the managing partner or partners—their butts are on the line. If Mikkelson Manufacturing ever goes bust, Mikkelson can kiss her mansion goodbye, and if the company breaks the law, she’s the one who goes to jail.”
I took that in. “Does that actually happen?”
“Not so much any more. Back when I was a kid, there were some really juicy cases, and yeah, some really rich people lost their shirts and landed behind bars. These days, you’re in business, you watch the laws as closely as you watch the bottom line—there’s too many people in politics who’d be happy to buy their constituents a new streetcar line with the proceeds from a court case.”
That didn’t sound much like the politics I was used to back home. I was still processing it when the other door came open and Michael Finch came in. “Mr. Carr,” he said, “I just talked to Ms. Berger. They got everything settled around lunchtime. If you’re ready, the President will be happy to see you this afternoon.”
I glanced at Patzek who grinned and made a scooting motion with one hand. We shook hands and said the usual, and I followed Finch out the door.
***********************Those of my readers who are fans of deindustrial fiction will be interested to hear that Founders House, the publisher of my novel Star’s Reach and the four After Oil anthologies, has a new peak oil SF novel just out, Dark Peak by George R Fehling. It’s a crisp and highly readable thriller set a generation or two after industrial civilization unravels—worth a look.
More generally, interest in deindustrial SF seems to be picking up; those of us who have been writing and reading fiction along those lines for a while may just have gotten in on the ground floor of a new genre. In a conversation a little while back with Founders House veep Shaun Kilgore, he mentioned that his firm has decided to branch out into Young Adult fiction with a deindustrial slant. Any of my readers who are interested in writing something along these lines should contact Founders House via their submissions page.
Along similar lines, I’m pleased to report that my tentative suggestion of an anthology of original short stories set in the world of my novel Star’s Reach is on its way to reality—or, more precisely, will make that transition with your help. I’ve set up a new website,  http://merigaproject.blogspot.com, to coordinate the project and help writers work out the details of their stories. I’d encourage everyone who’s contributed stories to the three Space Bats Challenges hosted by this blog to check it out, and consider contributing to the anthology.

The Patience of the Sea

Wed, 2015-10-28 18:39
I've commented here more than once that these essays draw their inspiration from quite a variety of sources. This week’s post is no exception to that rule. What kickstarted the train of thought that brought it into being was a walk along the seashore last weekend at Ocean City, Maryland, watching the waves roll in and thinking about the imminent death of a good friend.
East coast ocean resorts aren’t exactly a common destination for vacations in October, but then I wasn’t there for a vacation. I think most of my readers are aware that I’m a Freemason; it so happens that three organizations that supervise certain of the higher degrees of Masonry in Maryland took advantage of cheap off-season hotel rates to hold their annual meetings in Ocean City last weekend. Those readers who like to think of Masonry as a vast conspiracy of devil-worshipping space lizards, or whatever the Masonophobic paranoia du jour happens to be these days, would have been heartily disappointed by the weekend’s proceedings: a few dozen guys in off-the-rack business suits or cheap tuxedos, most of them small businessmen, skilled tradesmen, or retirees, donning the ornate regalia of an earlier time and discussing such exotic and conspiratorial topics as liability insurance for local lodges.
That said, a very modest sort of history was made at this year’s session of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of Maryland—as the name suggests, that’s the outfit that supervises the local bodies that confer the degrees of Royal Master and Select Master on qualified Master Masons in this state. More precisely, it’s one of two such bodies in Maryland. Back in the eighteenth century, Masonry in the United States split into two segregated branches, one for white and Native American Masons, the other for African-American Masons. Late in the twentieth century, as most other segregated institutions in American life dropped the color bar, the two branches of Masonry began a rapprochement as well.
Merger was never an option, and not for the reason you’re thinking.  Both branches of Masonry in the US are proud organizations with their own traditions and customs, not to mention a deeply ingrained habit of prickly independence, and neither was interested in surrendering its own heritage, identity, and autonomy in a merger. Thus what happened was simply that both sides opened their doors to men of any skin color or ethnic background, formally recognized each other’s validity, and worked out the details involved in welcoming each other’s initiates as visiting brethren. Masonry being what it is, all this proceeded at a glacial pace, and since each state Grand Lodge makes its own rules, the glaciers moved at different speeds in different parts of the country.
A couple of years ago, the first time I was qualified to attend the state sessions of the Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, I voted on the final stage in the movement of one particular glacierette, the establishment of full recognition and visitation between the two Maryland Grand Councils. My vote didn’t greatly matter, all things considered—the resolution was approved unanimously—but I was still happy to be able to cast it. I was equally happy, at this year’s grand sessions, to see the Most Illustrious Grand Master of the historically African-American Grand Council welcomed to the other Grand Council’s meeting with the traditional honors, invited to the East to address the brethren, and given a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Of such small steps is history composed.
When somebody gets around to writing the definitive account of how the two branches of US Masonry healed the old division, this weekend’s session will merit something between a footnote and a sentence if it gets mentioned at all. I seriously doubt the historian will even notice that one of the attendees came a day early, stayed a day late, enjoyed the quiet pleasures that an uncluttered seashore and a half-empty resort town have to offer, and figured out a detail or two about the trajectory of industrial civilization while walking along the beach on a cloudy afternoon, as a stiff breeze blew spray off the long gray rollers coming in from the North Atlantic.
All in all, it was a propitious place for such reflections. America just now, after all, has more than a little in common with an October day in Ocean City. Look around at the gaudy attractions that used to attract so much attention from adoring crowds, and you’ll see many of the same things I saw along the boardwalk that day. The space program? It’s boarded up for the duration like any other amusement park in the off season, though the plywood’s plastered with equally garish posters announcing coming attractions off somewhere in the indefinite future. The American Dream? The lights are shining on the upper floors and big flashing neon signs say “OPEN FOR BUSINESS,” but all the ground floor entrances are padlocked shut and nobody can get in.
The consumer products that fill the same pacifying function in American society as cheap trinkets for the kids at a seaside resort are still for sale here and there, though many of the shops are already closed and shuttered.  The shelves of those that are still open are looking decidedly bare, and what’s left has that oddly mournful quality that shoddy plastic gewgaws always get when they’ve been left on display too long. The one difference that stands out is that Ocean City in late October is mostly deserted, while the crowds are still here in today’s America, milling around aimlessly in front of locked doors and lightless windows, while the sky darkens with oncoming weather and the sea murmurs and waits.
But that wasn’t the thing that sparked this week’s reflections. The thing that sparked this week’s reflections was a stray question that came to mind when I abandoned the boardwalk to the handful of visitors who were strolling along it, and crossed the sand to the edge of the surf, thinking as I walked about the friend I mentioned earlier, who was lying in a hospital bed on the other side of the continent while his body slowly and implacably shut down. The boardwalk, the tourist attractions, and the hulking Babylonian glass-and-concrete masses of big hotels and condominiums stood on one side of me, while on the other, the cold gray sea surged and splashed and the terns danced past on the wind. The question in my mind was this: in a thousand years, which of these things will still be around?
That’s a surprisingly edgy question these days, and to make sense of that, I’d like to jump to the seemingly unrelated subject of an article that appeared a little while ago in the glossy environmental magazine Orion.
The article was titled “Peak Oil Fantasy,” and it was written by Charles Mann, who made a modest splash a little while back with a couple of mildly controversial popular histories of the New World before and after Europeans got there. Those of my readers who have been keeping track of the mainstream media’s ongoing denunciations of peak oil will find it wearily familiar. It brandished the usual set of carefully cherrypicked predictions about the future of petroleum production that didn’t happen to pan out, claimed on that basis that peak oil can’t happen at all because it hasn’t happened yet, leapt from there to the insistence that our very finite planet must somehow contain a limitless amount of petroleum, and wound up blustering that everybody ought to get with the program, “cast away the narrative of scarcity,” and just shut up about peak oil.
Mann’s article was a little more disingenuous than the run of the mill anti-peak-oil rant—it takes a certain amount of nerve to talk at length about M. King Hubbert, for example, without once mentioning the fact that he successfully predicted the peaking of US petroleum production in 1970, using the same equations that successfully predicted the peaking of world conventional petroleum production in 2005 and are being used to track the rise and fall of shale oil and other unconventional oil sources right now. Other than that, there’s nothing novel about “Peak Oil Fantasy,” as all but identical articles using the same talking points and rhetoric have appeared regularly for years now in The Wall Street Journal and other pro-industry, pave-the-planet publications. The only oddity is that a screed of this overfamiliar kind found its way into a magazine that claims to be all about environmental protection.
Even that isn’t as novel as I would wish. Ever since The Archdruid Report began publication, just short of a decade ago, I’ve been fielding emails and letters, by turns spluttering, coaxing, and patronizing, urging me to stop talking about peak oil, the limits to growth, and the ongoing decline and approaching fall of industrial society, and start talking instead about climate change, overpopulation, capitalism, or what have you. No few of these have come from people who call themselves environmentalists, and tolerably often they reference this or that environmental issue in trying to make their case.
The interesting thing about this ongoing stream of commentary is that I’ve actually discussed climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism at some length in these essays. When I point this out, I tend to get either a great deal of hemming and hawing, or the kind of sudden silence that lets you hear the surf from miles away. Clearly what I have to say about climate change, overpopulation, and capitalism isn’t what these readers are looking for, and just as clearly they’re not comfortable talking about the reasons why what I have to say isn’t what they’re looking for.
What interests me is that in the case of climate change, at least, there are aspects of that phenomenon that get the same response. If you ever want to reduce a room full of affluent liberal climate change activists to uncomfortable silence, for example, mention that the southern half of the state of Florida is going to turn into uninhabitable salt marsh in the next few decades no matter what anybody does. You can get the same response if you mention that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is so far advanced at this point that no human action can stop the drowning of every coastal city on the planet—and don’t you dare mention the extensive and growing body of research that shows that the collapse of  major ice sheets doesn’t happen at a rate of a few inches of sea level rise per century, but includes sudden “marine transgressions” of many feet at a time instead.
This discomfort is all the more interesting because these same things were being loudly predicted not much more than a decade ago by affluent liberal climate change activists. As long as they were threats located off somewhere in the indefinite future, they were eagerly used as verbal ammunition, but each of them vanished from the rhetoric as soon as it stopped being a threat and turned into a reality. I noted in an essay some years back the way that methane boiling out of the Arctic Ocean, which was described in ghoulish detail over and over again as the climate change über-threat, suddenly got dropped like a anthropogenically heated rock by climate change activists the moment it began to happen.
It’s still happening. As Arctic temperatures soar, rivers of meltwater are sluicing across the Greenland ice cap and cascading into the surrounding oceans, and the ice cap itself, in the words of one climate scientist cited in the article just linked, is as full of holes as Swiss cheese due to meltwater streaming through its innards. While climate change activists insist ever more loudly that we can still fix everything if only the right things happen in the next five years—okay, ten—well, make that fifteen—the cold gray seas off Greenland aren’t listening. The only voices that matter to them come from the roar of waterfalls off the waning ice cap, the hiss of methane bubbles rising from the shallows, and the hushed whispers of temperature and salinity in the dark waters below.
Glaciologists and marine hydrologists know this, and so do a significant number of climate scientists. It’s the would-be mass movement around climate change that has done its level best to pretend that the only irreversible tipping points are still somewhere in the future. They’re not alone in that; for a good many decades now, the entire environmental movement has been stuck in a broken-record rut, saying over and over again that we still have five years to fix the biosphere. Those of my readers who doubt this might want to pick up the twenty-year and thirty-year updates to The Limits to Growth and compare what they have to say about how long the world has to stave off catastrophe.
That is to say, the environmental movement these days has become a prisoner of the same delusion of human omnipotence that shapes so much of contemporary culture.
That’s the context in which Charles Mann’s denunciation of the peak oil heresy needs to be taken. To be acceptable in today’s mainstream environmental scene, a cause has to be stated in terms that feed the fantasy just named. Climate change is a perfect fit, since it starts from an affirmation of human power—“Look at us! We’re so almighty that we can wreck the climate of the whole planet!” —and goes on to insist that all we have to do is turn our limitless might to fixing the climate instead. The campaigns to save this or that species of big cute animal draw their force from the same emotions—“We’re so powerful that we can wipe out the elephants, but let’s keep some around for our own greater glory!” Here again, though, once some bit of ecological damagecan no longer be fixed, everyone finds something else to talk about, because that data point doesn’t feed the same fantasy.
Peak oil is unacceptable to the environmental establishment, in turn, because there’s no way to spin it as a story of human omnipotence. If you understand what the peak oil narrative is saying, you realize that the power we human beings currently claim to have isn’t actually ours; we simply stole the carbon the planet had stashed in its underground cookie jar and used it to go on a three-century-long joyride, which is almost over. The “narrative of scarcity” Mann denounced so heatedly is, after all, the simple reality of life on a finite planet.  We had the leisure to pretend otherwise for a very brief interval, and now that interval is coming to an end. There’s no melodrama in that, no opportunity for striking grand poses on which our own admiring gaze can rest, just the awkward reality of coming to terms with the fact that we’ve made many stupid decisions and now have to deal with the consequences thereof.
This is why the one alternative to saving the world that everyone in the mainstream environmental scene is willing to talk about is the prospect of imminent universal dieoff.  Near-term human extinction, the apocalypse du jour ever since December 21, 2012 passed by without incident, takes its popularity from the same fantasy of omnipotence—if we human beings are the biggest and baddest thing in the cosmos, after all, what’s the ultimate display of our power? Why, destroying ourselves, of course!
There’s a bubbling cauldron of unspoken motives behind the widespread popularity of this delusion of omnipotence, but I suspect that a large part of it comes from an unsuspected source. The generations that came of age after the Second World War faced, from their earliest days, a profoundly unsettling experience that very few of their elders ever had, and then usually in adulthood. In place of comfortable religious narratives that placed the origin of the universe a short time in the past, and its end an even shorter time in the future, they grew up with what paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould usefully termed “deep time”—the vision of a past and a future on time scales the human mind has never evolved the capacity to grasp, in which all of human history is less than an eyeblink, and you and I, dear reader, no matter what we do, won’t even merit the smallest of footnotes in the story of life on this planet.
Growing up on the heels of the baby boom, I experienced all this myself. I read the Life Nature Library about as soon as I could read anything at all; by age six or so I had my favorite dinosaurs, and a little later on succumbed to the beauty of trilobites and the vast slow dances of geology.  By some blend of dumb luck and happenstance, though, I missed out on the sense of entitlement so pervasive among those born when the United States was at the zenith of its prosperity and power. The gospel of “you can have whatever you desire” that Barbara Ehrenreich anatomized so pitilessly in her book Bright-Sided found no answering chord in my psyche, and so it never bothered me in the least to think that a hundred million years from now, some intelligent critter of a species not yet spawned might gaze in delight at my fossilized skull, and rub its mandibles together to produce some equivalent of “Ooh, look at that!”
I’m far from the only one these days who sees the unhuman vastness of nature as something to celebrate, rather than something to fear and, at least in imagination, to try to overcome through overblown fantasies of human importance. Still, it’s a minority view as yet, and to judge by the points made earlier in this essay, it seems underrepresented in the mainstream of today’s environmental movement. The fixation on narratives that assign the sole active role to humanity and a purely passive role to nature is, I’ve come to think, a reaction to the collision between two potent cultural forces in contemporary life—the widely promulgated fantasy of infinite entitlement, on the one hand, and on the other, the dawning recognition of our species’ really quite modest, and very sharply limited, place in the scheme of things.
The conflict between these factors is becoming increasingly hard to avoid, and drives increasingly erratic behaviors, as the years pass. The first and largest generation to follow the Second World War in the developed world is nearing the one limit that affects each of us most personally. Thus it’s probably not an accident that 2030—the currently fashionable date by which humans are all supposed to be extinct—is right around the date when the average baby boomer’s statistical lifespan will run out. To my mind, the attempt to avoid that face-first encounter with limits does a lot to explain why so many boomers bailed into evangelical Protestant fundamentalism in the 1980s, with its promise that Christ would show up any day now and spare them the necessity of dying. It explains equally well why the 2012 hysteria, which made similar claims, attracted so much wasted breath in its day—and why so few people these days are able to come to terms with the reality of scarcity, of limits, and of the end of the industrial age and all its wildly overblown fantasies of self-importance.
The friend of mine who was dying as I walked the Ocean City beach last weekend was born in 1949, in the midst of the baby boom, but somehow he managed to avoid those antics and the obsessions that drove them. As a Druid among other things—he was one of the very few people I’ve known well who received more initiations than I have—he understood that death is not the opposite of life but the completion of it. When he collapsed at work a few weeks ago and was rushed to the hospital, his friends and fellow initiates in the Puget Sound area took up a steady vigil at his bedside, and kept those of us out of the region informed. The appropriate ceremonies prepared him for his passing, and another set of ceremonies are helping the living cope with his departure.
A thousand years from now, in all probability, nobody will remember how Corby Ingold lived and died, any more than they will remember the 2015 annual sessions of the Maryland Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters, or this blog, or its author. A thousand years from now, for that matter, fossil fuels will be a dim memory, and so will the Greenland ice cap, the Florida peninsula, and a great deal more. It’s just possible, though very unlikely, that human beings will be among those dim memories—we rank with cockroaches and rats among Nature’s supreme generalists, and like them are remarkably hard to exterminate. Whether or not human beings are there to witness it, though, waves like the ones that rolled onto the beach at Ocean City will be rolling over the sunken ruins of Ocean City hotels, just as they rolled above the mudflats where trilobites scurried six hundred million years ago, and as they will roll onto whatever shores rise up when the continents we now inhabit have long since vanished forever.
The sea is patient.  It has outlived countless species and will outlive countless more, ours among them. Among the things it might be able to teach us, on the off chance that we’re willing to learn, is that the life of a species, like that of an individual, is completed by death, not erased by it, and that its value is measured by the beauty and wisdom it experiences and creates, not by the crasser measurements of brute force and brute endurance.