Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Technological Superstitions

I'd meant to go straight on from last week’s post about völkerwanderung and the dissolution and birth of ethnic identities in dark age societies, and start talking about the mechanisms by which societies destroy themselves—with an eye, of course, to the present example. Still, as I’ve noted here more than once, there are certain complexities involved in the project of discussing the decline and fall of civilizations in a civilization that’s hard at work on its own decline and fall, and one of those complexities is the way that tempting examples of the process keep popping up as we go.

The last week or so has been unusually full of those. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has continued to spread at an exponential rate as hopelessly underfunded attempts to contain it crumple, while the leaders of the world’s industrial nations distract themselves playing geopolitics in blithe disregard of the very real possibility that their inattention may be helping to launch the next great global pandemic.  In other news—tip of the archdruidical hat here to The Daily Impact—companies and investors who have been involved in the fracking bubble are quietly bailing out. If things continue on their current trajectory, as I’ve noted before, this autumn could very well see the fracking boom go bust; it’s anyone’s guess how heavily that will hit the global economy, but fracking-related loans and investments have accounted for a sufficiently large fraction of Wall Street profits in recent years that the crater left by a fracking bust will likely be large and deep. 

Regular readers of this blog already know, though, that it’s most often the little things that catch my attention, and the subject of this week’s post is no exception. Thus I’m pleased to announce that a coterie of scientists and science fiction writers has figured out what’s wrong with the world today: there are, ahem, too many negative portrayals of the future in popular media. To counter this deluge of unwarranted pessimism, they’ve organized a group called Project Hieroglyph, and published an anthology of new, cheery, upbeat SF stories about marvelous new technologies that could become realities within the next fifty years. That certainly ought to do the trick!

Now of course I’m hardly in a position to discourage anyone from putting together a science fiction anthology around an unpopular theme. After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, the anthology that resulted from the first Space Bats challenge here in 2011, is exactly that, and two similar anthologies from this blog’s second Space Bats challenge are going through the editing and publishing process as I write these words. That said, I’d question the claim that those three anthologies will somehow cause the planet’s oil reserves to run dry any faster than they otherwise will.

The same sort of skepticism, I suggest, may be worth applying to Project Hieroglyph and its anthology.  The contemporary  crisis of industrial society isn’t being caused by a lack of optimism; its roots go deep into the tough subsoil of geological and thermodynamic reality, to the lethal mismatch between fantasies of endless economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, and to the less immediately deadly but even more pervasive mismatch between fantasies of perpetual technological progress and that nemesis of all linear thinking, the law of diminishing returns.  The failure of optimism that these writers are bemoaning is a symptom rather than a cause, and insisting that the way to solve our problems is to push optimistic notions about the future at people is more than a little like deciding that the best way to deal with flashing red warning lights on the control panel of an airplane is to put little pieces of opaque green tape over them so everything looks fine again.

It’s not as though there’s been a shortage of giddily optimistic visions of a gizmocentric future in recent years, after all. I grant that the most colorful works of imaginative fiction we’ve seen of late have come from those economists and politicians who keep insisting that the only way out of our current economic and social malaise is to do even more of the same things that got us into it. That said, any of my readers who step into a bookstore or a video store and look for something that features interstellar travel or any of the other shibboleths of the contemporary cult of progress won’t have to work hard to find one. What’s happened, rather, is that such things are no longer as popular as they once were, because people find that stories about bleaker futures hedged in with harsh limits are more to their taste.

The question that needs to be asked, then, is why this should be the case. As I see it, there are at least three very good reasons.

First, those bleaker futures and harsh limits reflect the realities of life in contemporary America. Set aside the top twenty per cent of the population by income, and Americans have on average seen their standard of living slide steadily downhill for more than four decades. In 1970, to note just one measure of how far things have gone, an American family with one working class salary could afford to buy a house, pay all their bills on time, put three square meals on the table every day, and still have enough left over for the occasional vacation or high-ticket luxury item. Now? In much of today’s America, a single working class salary isn’t enough to keep a family off the streets.

That history of relentless economic decline has had a massive impact on attitudes toward the future, toward science, and toward technological progress. In 1969, it was only in the ghettos where America confined its urban poor that any significant number of people responded to the Apollo moon landing with the sort of disgusted alienation that Gil Scott-Heron expressed memorably in his furious ballad “Whitey on the Moon.”  Nowadays, a much greater number of Americans—quite possibly a majority—see the latest ballyhooed achievements of science and technology as just one more round of pointless stunts from which they won’t benefit in the least.

It’s easy but inaccurate to insist that they’re mistaken in that assessment. Outside the narrowing circle of the well-to-do, many Americans these days spend more time coping with the problems caused by technologies than they do enjoying the benefits thereof. Most of the jobs eliminated by automation, after all, used to provide gainful employment for the poor; most of the localities that are dumping grounds for toxic waste, similarly, are inhabited by people toward the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, and so on down the list of unintended consequences and technological blowback. By and large, the benefits of new technology trickle up the social ladder, while the costs and burdens trickle down; this has a lot to do with the fact that the grandchildren of people who enjoyed The Jetsons now find The Hunger Games more to their taste.

That’s the first reason. The second is that for decades now, the great majority of the claims made about wonderful new technologies that would inevitably become part of our lives in the next few decades have turned out to be dead wrong. From jetpacks and flying cars to domed cities and vacations on the Moon, from the nuclear power plants that would make electricity too cheap to meter to the conquest of poverty, disease, and death itself, most of the promises offered by the propagandists and publicists of technological progress haven’t happened. That has understandably made people noticeably less impressed by further rounds of promises that likely won’t come true either.

When I was a child, if I may insert a personal reflection here, one of my favorite books was titled You Will Go To The Moon. I suspect most American of my generation remember that book, however dimly, with its glossy portrayal of what space travel would be like in the near future: the great conical rocket with its winged upper stage, the white doughnut-shaped space station turning in orbit, and the rest of it. I honestly expected to make that trip someday, and I was encouraged in that belief by a chorus of authoritative voices for whom permanent space stations, bases on the Moon, and a manned landing on Mars were a done deal by the year 2000.

Now of course in those days the United States still had a manned space program capable of putting bootprints on the Moon. We don’t have one of those any more. It’s worth talking about why that is, because the same logic applies equally well to most of the other grand technological projects that were proclaimed not so long ago as the inescapable path to a shiny new future.

We don’t have a manned space program any more, to begin with, because the United States is effectively bankrupt, having committed itself in the usual manner to the sort of imperial overstretch chronicled by Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and cashed in its future for a temporary supremacy over most of the planet. That’s the unmentionable subtext behind the disintegration of America’s infrastructure and built environment, the gutting of its once-mighty industrial plant, and a good deal of the steady decline in standards of living mentioned earlier in this post. Britain dreamed about expansion into space when it still had an empire—the British Interplanetary Society was a major presence in space-travel advocacy in the first half of the twentieth century—and shelved those dreams when its empire went away; the United States is in the process of the same retreat. Still, there’s more going on here than this.

Another reason we don’t have a manned space program any more is that all those decades of giddy rhetoric about New Worlds For Man never got around to discussing the difference between technical feasibility and economic viability. The promoters of space travel fell into the common trap of believing their own hype, and convinced themselves that orbital factories, mines on the Moon, and the like would surely turn out to be paying propositions. What they forgot, of course, is what I’ve called the biosphere dividend:  the vast array of goods and services that the Earth’s natural cycles provide for human beings free of charge, which have to be paid for anywhere else. The best current estimate for the value of that dividend, from a 1997 paper in Science written by a team headed by Richard Constanza, is that it’s something like three times the total value of all goods and services produced by human beings.

As a very rough estimate, in other words, economic activity anywhere in the solar system other than Earth will cost around four times what it costs on Earth, even apart from transportation costs, because the services provided here for free by the biosphere have to be paid for in space or on the solar system’s other worlds. That’s why all the talk about space as a new economic frontier went nowhere; orbital manufacturing was tried—the Skylab program of the 1970s, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station in its early days all featured experiments along those lines—and the modest advantages of freefall and ready access to hard vacuum didn’t make enough of a difference to offset the costs. Thus manned space travel, like commercial supersonic aircraft, nuclear power plants, and plenty of other erstwhile waves of the future, turned into a gargantuan white elephant that could only be supported so long as massive and continuing government subsidies were forthcoming.

Those are two of the reasons why we don’t have a manned space program any more. The third is less tangible but, I suspect, far and away the most important. It can be tracked by picking up any illustrated book about the solar system that was written before we got there, and comparing what outer space and other worlds were supposed to look like with what was actually waiting for our landers and probes.

I have in front of me right now, for example, a painting of a scene on the Moon in a book published the year I was born. It’s a gorgeous, romantic view. Blue earthlight splashes over a crater in the foreground; further off, needle-sharp mountains catch the sunlight; the sky is full of brilliant stars. Too bad that’s not what the Apollo astronauts found when they got there. Nobody told the Moon it was supposed to cater to human notions of scenic grandeur, and so it presented its visitors with vistas of dull gray hillocks and empty plains beneath a flat black sky. To anybody but a selenologist, the one thing worth attention in that dreary scene was the glowing blue sphere of Earth 240,000 miles away.

For an even stronger contrast, consider the pictures beamed back by the first Viking probe from the surface of Mars in 1976, and compare that to the gaudy images of the Sun’s fourth planet that were in circulation in popular culture up to that time. I remember the event tolerably well, and one of the things I remember most clearly is the pervasive sense of disappointment—of “is that all?”—shared by everyone in the room.  The images from the lander didn’t look like Barsoom, or the arid but gorgeous setting of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, or any of the other visions of Mars everyone in 1970s America had tucked away in their brains; they looked for all of either world like an unusually dull corner of Nevada that had somehow been denuded of air, water, and life.

Here again, the proponents of space travel fell into the trap of believing their own hype, and forgot that science fiction is no more about real futures than romance novels are about real relationships. That isn’t a criticism of science fiction, by the way, though I suspect the members of Project Hieroglyph will take it as one. Science fiction is a literature of ideas, not of crass realities, and it evokes the sense of wonder that is its distinctive literary effect by dissolving the barrier between the realistic and the fantastic. What too often got forgotten, though, is that literary effects don’t guarantee the validity of prophecies—they’re far more likely to hide the flaws of improbable claims behind a haze of emotion.

Romance writers don’t seem to have much trouble recognizing that their novels are not about the real world. Science fiction, by contrast, has suffered from an overdeveloped sense of its own importance for many years now. I’m thinking just now of a typical essay by Isaac Asimov that described science fiction writers as scouts for the onward march of humanity. (Note the presuppositions that humanity is going somewhere, that all of it’s going in a single direction, and that this direction just happens to be defined by the literary tastes of an eccentric subcategory of 20th century popular fiction.) That sort of thinking led too many people in the midst of the postwar boom to forget that the universe is under no obligation to conform to our wholly anthropocentric notions of human destiny and provide us with New Worlds for Man just because we happen to want some.

Mutatis mutandis, that’s what happened to most of the other grand visions of transformative technological progress that were proclaimed so enthusiastically over the last century or so. Most of them never happened, and those that did turned out to be far less thrilling and far more problematic than the advance billing insisted they would be. Faced with that repeated realization, a great many Americans decided—and not without reason—that more of the same gosh-wow claims were not of interest. That shifted public taste away from cozy optimism toward a harsher take on our future.

The third factor driving that shift in taste, though, may be the most important of all, and it’s also one of the most comprehensively tabooed subjects in contemporary life. Most human phenomena are subject to the law of diminishing returns; the lesson that contemporary industrial societies are trying their level best not to learn just now is that technological progress is one of the phenomena to which this law applies. Thus there can be such a thing as too much technology, and a very strong case can be made that in the world’s industrial nations, we’ve already gotten well past that point.

In a typically cogent article, economist Herman Daly sorts our the law of diminishing returns into three interacting processes. The first is diminishing marginal utility—that is, the more of anything you have, the less any additional increment of that thing contributes to your wellbeing. If you’re hungry, one sandwich is a very good thing; two is pleasant; three is a luxury; and somewhere beyond that, when you’ve given sandwiches to all your coworkers, the local street people, and anyone else you can find, more sandwiches stop being any use to you. When more of anything  no longers bring any additional benefit, you’ve reached the point of futility, at which further increments are a waste of time and resources.

Well before that happens, though, two other factors come into play. First, it costs you almost nothing to cope with one sandwich, and very little more to cope with two or three. After that you start having to invest time, and quite possibly resources, in dealing with all those sandwiches, and each additional sandwich adds to the total burden. Economists call that increasing marginal disutility—that is, the more of anything you have, the more any additional increment of that thing is going to cost you, in one way or another. Somewhere in there, too, there’s the impact that dealing with those sandwiches has on your ability to deal with other things you need to do; that’s increasing risk of whole-system disruption—the more of anything you have, the more likely it is that an additional increment of that thing is going to disrupt the wider system in which you exist.

Next to nobody wants to talk about the way that technological progress has already passed the point of diminishing returns: that the marginal utility of each new round of technology is dropping fast, the marginal disutility is rising at least as fast, and whole-system disruptions driven by technology are becoming an inescapable presence in everyday life. Still, I’ve come to think that an uncomfortable awareness of that fact is becoming increasingly common these days, however subliminal that awareness may be, and beginning to have an popular culture among many other things. If you’re in a hole, as the saying goes, the first thing to do is stop digging; if a large and growing fraction of your society’s problems are being caused by too much technology applied with too little caution, similarly, it’s not exactly helpful to insist that applying even more technology with even less skepticism about its consequences is the only possible answer to those problems.

There’s a useful word for something that remains stuck in a culture after the conditions that once made it relevant have passed away, and that word is “superstition.” I’d like to suggest that the faith-based claims that more technology is always better than less, that every problem must have a technological solution, and that technology always solves more problems than it creates, are among the prevailing superstitions of our time. I’d also like to suggest that, comforting and soothing as those superstitions may be, it’s high time we outgrow them and deal with the world as it actually is—a world in which yet another helping of faith-based optimism is far from useful.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Dark Age America: The Cauldron of Nations

It's one thing to suggest, as I did in last week’s post here, that North America a few centuries from now might have something like five per cent of its current population. It’s quite another thing to talk about exactly whose descendants will comprise that five per cent. That’s what I intend to do this week, and yes, I know that raising that issue is normally a very good way to spark a shouting match in which who-did-what-to-whom rhetoric plays its usual role in drowning out everything else.

Now of course there’s a point to talking about, and learning from, the abuses inflicted by groups of people on other groups of people over the last five centuries or so of North American history.  Such discussions, though, have very little to offer the topic of the current series of posts here on The Archdruid Report.  History may be a source of moral lessons but it’s not a moral phenomenon; a glance back over our past shows clearly enough that who won, who lost, who ended up ruling a society, and who ended up enslaved or exterminated by that same society, was not determined by moral virtue or by the justice of one or another cause, but by the crassly pragmatic factors of military, political, and economic power. No doubt most of us would rather live in a world that didn’t work that way, but here we are, and morality remains a matter of individual choices—yours and mine—in the face of a cosmos that seems sublimely unconcerned with our moral beliefs.

Thus we can take it for granted that just as the borders that currently divide North America were put there by force or the threat of force, the dissolution of those borders and their replacement with new lines of division will happen the same way. For that matter, it’s a safe bet that the social divisions—ethnic and otherwise—of the successor cultures that emerge in the aftermath of our downfall will be established and enforced by means no more just or fair than the ones that currently distribute wealth and privilege to the different social and ethnic strata in today’s North American nations. Again, it would be pleasant to live in a world where that isn’t true, but we don’t.

I apologize to any of my readers who are offended or upset by these points. In order to make any kind of sense of the way that civilizations fall—and more to the point, the way that ours is currently falling—it’s essential to get past the belief that history is under any obligation to hand out rewards for good behavior and punishments for the opposite, or for that matter the other way around. Over the years and decades and centuries ahead of us, as industrial civilization crumbles, a great many people who believe with all their hearts that their cause is right and just are going to die anyway, and there will be no shortage of brutal, hateful, vile individuals who claw their way to the top—for a while, at least. One of the reliable features of dark ages is that while they last, the top of the heap is a very unsafe place to be.

North America being what it is today, a great many people considering the sort of future I’ve just sketched out immediately start thinking about the potential for ethnic conflict, especially but not only in the United States. It’s an issue worth discussing, and not only for the currently obvious reasons. Conflict between ethnic groups is quite often a major issue in the twilight years of a civilization, for reasons we’ll discuss shortly, but it’s also self-terminating, for an interesting reason: traditional ethnic divisions don’t survive dark ages. In an age of political dissolution, economic implosion, social chaos, demographic collapse, and mass migration, the factors that maintain established ethnic divisions in place don’t last long. In their place, new ethnicities emerge.  It’s a commonplace of history that dark ages are the cauldron from which nations are born.

So we have three stages, which overlap to a greater or lesser degree: a stage of ethnic conflict, a stage of ethnic dissolution, and a stage of ethnogenesis. Let’s take them one at a time.

The stage of ethnic conflict is one effect of the economic contraction that’s inseparable from the decline of a civilization.  If a rising tide lifts all boats, as economists of the trickle-down school used to insist, a falling tide has a much more differentiated effect, since each group in a declining society does its best to see to it that as much as possible of the costs of decline land on someone else.  Since each group’s access to wealth and privilege determines fairly exactly how much influence it has on the process, it’s one of the constants of decline and fall that the costs and burdens of decline trickle down, landing with most force on those at the bottom of the pyramid.

That heats up animosities across the board: between ethnic groups, between regions, between political and religious divisions, you name it. Since everyone below the uppermost levels of wealth and power loses some of what they’ve come to expect, and since it’s human nature to pay more attention to what you’ve lost than to the difference between what you’ve retained and what someone worse off than you has to make do with, everyone’s aggrieved, and everyone sees any attempt by someone else to better their condition as a threat. That’s by no means entirely inaccurate—if the pie’s shrinking, any attempt to get a wider slice has to come at somebody else’s expense—but it fans the flames of conflict even further, helping to drive the situation toward the inevitable explosions.

One very common and very interesting feature of this process is that the increase in ethnic tensions tend to parallel a process of ethnic consolidation. In the United States a century ago, for example, the division of society by ethnicity wasn’t anything so like as simple as it is today. The uppermost caste in most of the country wasn’t simply white, it was white male Episcopalians whose ancestors got here from northwestern Europe before the Revolutionary War. Irish ranked below Germans but above Italians, who looked down on Jews, and so on down the ladder to the very bottom, which was occupied by either African-Americans or Native Americans depending on locality. Within any given ethnicity, furthermore, steep social divisions existed, microcosms of a hierarchically ordered macrocosm; gender distinctions and a great many other lines of fracture combined with the ethnic divisions just noted to make American society in 1914 as intricately caste-ridden as any culture on the planet.

The partial dissolution of many of these divisions has resulted inevitably in the hardening of those that remain. That’s a common pattern, too: consider the way that the rights of Roman citizenship expanded step by step from the inhabitants of the city of Rome itself, to larger and larger fractions of the people it dominated, until finally every free adult male in the Empire was a Roman citizen by definition. Parallel to that process came a hardening of the major divisions, between free persons and slaves on the one hand, and between citizens of the Empire and the barbarians outside its borders on the other. The result was the same in that case as it is in ours: traditional, parochial jealousies and prejudices focused on people one step higher or lower on the ladder of caste give way to new loyalties and hatreds uniting ever greater fractions of the population into increasingly large and explosive masses.

The way that this interlocks with the standard mechanisms of decline and fall will be a central theme of future posts. The crucial detail, though, is that a society riven by increasingly bitter divisions of the sort just sketched out is very poorly positioned to deal with external pressure or serious crisis. “Divide and conquer,” the Romans liked to say during the centuries of their power:  splitting up their enemies and crushing them one at a time was the fundamental strategy they used to build their empire. On the way down, though, it was the body of Roman society that did the dividing, tearing itself apart along every available line of schism, and Rome was accordingly conquered in its turn. That’s usual for falling civilizations, and we’re well along the same route in the United States today.

Ethnic divisions thus routinely play a significant role in the crash of civilizations. Still, as noted above, the resulting chaos quickly shreds the institutional arrangements that make ethnic divisions endure in a settled society. Charismatic leaders emerge out of the chaos, and those that are capable of envisioning and forming alliances across ethnic lines succeed where their rivals fail; the reliable result is a chaotic melting pot of armed bands and temporary communities drawn from all available sources. When the Huns first came west from the Eurasian steppes around 370 CE, for example, they were apparently a federation of related Central Asian tribes; by the time of Attila, rather less than a century later, his vast armies included warriors from most of the ethnic groups of eastern Europe. We don’t even know what their leader’s actual name was; “Attila” was a nickname—“Daddy”—in Visigothic, the lingua franca among the eastern barbarians at that time.

The same chaotic reshuffling was just as common on the other side of the collapsing Roman frontiers. The province of Britannia, for instance, had long been divided into ethnic groups with their own distinct religious and cultural traditions. In the wake of the Roman collapse and the Saxon invasions, the survivors who took refuge in the mountains of the west forgot the old divisions, and took to calling themselves by a new name:  Combrogi, “fellow-countrymen” in old Brythonic. Nowadays that’s Cymry, the name the Welsh use for themselves.  Not everyone who ended up as Combrogi was British by ancestry—one of the famous Welsh chieftains in the wars against the Saxons was a Visigoth named Theodoric—nor were all the people on the other side Saxons—one of the leaders of the invaders was a Briton named Caradoc ap Cunorix,  the “Cerdic son of Cynric” of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the efficiency of the blender into which every political, economic, social, and ethnic manifestation got tossed in the last years of Rome. My favorite example of the raw confusion of that time is the remarkable career of another Saxon leader named Odoacer. He was the son of one of Attila the Hun’s generals, but got involved in Saxon raids on Britain after Attila’s death. Sometime in the 460s, when the struggle between the Britons and the Saxons was more or less stuck in deadlock, Odoacer decided to look for better pickings elsewhere, and led a Saxon fleet that landed at the mouth of the Loire in western France. For the next decade or so, more or less in alliance with Childeric, king of the Franks, he fought the Romans, the Goths, and the Bretons there.

When the Saxon hold on the Loire was finally broken, Odoacer took the remains of his force and joined Childeric in an assault on Italy. No records survive of the fate of that expedition, but it apparently didn’t go well. Odoacer next turned up, without an army, in what’s now Austria and was then the province of Noricum. It took him only a short time to scrape together a following from the random mix of barbarian warriors to be found there, and in 476 he marched on Italy again, and overthrew the equally random mix of barbarians who had recently seized control of the peninsula. 

The Emperor of the West just then, the heir of the Caesars and titular lord of half the world, was a boy named Romulus Augustulus. In a fine bit of irony, he also happened to be the son of Attila the Hun’s Greek secretary, a sometime ally of Odoacer’s father. This may be why, instead of doing the usual thing and having the boy killed, Odoacer basically told the last Emperor of Rome to run along and play.  That sort of clemency was unusual, and it wasn’t repeated by the next barbarian warlord in line; fourteen years later Odoacer was murdered by order of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, who proceeded to take his place as temporary master of the corpse of imperial Rome.

Soldiers of fortune, or of misfortune for that matter, weren’t the only people engaged in this sort of heavily armed tour of the post-Roman world during those same years. Entire nations were doing the same thing. Those of my readers who have been watching North America’s climate come unhinged may be interested to know that severe droughts in Central Asia may have been the trigger that kickstarted the process, pushing nomadic tribes out of their traditional territories in a desperate quest for survival. Whether or not that’s what pushed the Huns into motion, the westward migration of the Huns forced other barbarian peoples further west to flee for their lives, and the chain of dominoes thus set in motion played a massive role in creating the chaos in which figures like Odoacer rose and fell. It’s a measure of the sheer scale of these migrations that before Rome started to topple, many of the ancestors of today’s Spaniards lived in what’s now the Ukraine.

And afterwards? The migrations slowed and finally stopped, the warlords became kings, and the people who found themselves in some more or less stable kingdom began the slow process by which a random assortment of refugees and military veterans from the far corners of the Roman world became the first draft of a nation. The former province of Britannia, for example, became seven Saxon kingdoms and a varying number of Celtic ones, and then began the slow process of war and coalescence out of which England, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall gradually emerged. Elsewhere, the same process moved at varying rates; new nations, languages, ethnic groups came into being. The cauldron of nations had come off the boil, and the history of Europe settled down to a somewhat less frenetic rhythm.

I’ve used post-Roman Europe as a convenient and solidly documented example, but transformations of the same kind are commonplace whenever a civilization goes down. The smaller and more isolated the geographical area of the civilization that falls, the less likely mass migrations are—ancient China, Mesopotamia, and central Mexico had plenty of them, while the collapse of the classic Maya and Heian Japan featured a shortage of wandering hordes—but the rest of the story is among the standard features you get with societal collapse. North America is neither small nor isolated, and so it’s a safe bet that we’ll get a tolerably complete version of the usual process right here in the centuries ahead.

What does that mean in practice? It means, to begin with, that a rising spiral of conflict along ethnic, cultural, religious, political, regional, and social lines will play an ever larger role in North American life for decades to come. Those of my readers who have been paying attention to events, especially but not only in the United States, will have already seen that spiral getting under way. As the first few rounds of economic contraction have begun to bite, the standard response of every group you care to name has been to try to get the bite taken out of someone else. Listen to the insults being flung around in the political controversies of the present day—the thieving rich, the shiftless poor, and the rest of it—and notice how many of them amount to claims that wealth that ought to belong to one group of people is being unfairly held by another. In those claims, you can hear the first whispers of the battle-cries that will be shouted as the usual internecine wars begin to tear our civilization apart.

As those get under way, for reasons we’ll discuss at length in future posts, governments and the other institutions of civil society will come apart at the seams, and the charismatic leaders already mentioned will rise to fill their place. In response, existing loyalties will begin to dissolve as the normal process of warband formation kicks into overdrive. In such times a strong and gifted leader like Attila the Hun can unite any number of contending factions into a single overwhelming force, but at this stage such things have no permanence; once the warlord dies, ages, or runs out of luck, the forces so briefly united will turn on each other and plunge the continent back into chaos.

There will also be mass migrations, and far more likely than not these will be on a scale that would have impressed Attila himself. That’s one of the ways that the climate change our civilization has unleashed on the planet is a gift that just keeps on giving; until the climate settles back down to some semblance of stability, and sea levels have risen as far as they’re going to rise, people in vulnerable areas are going to be forced out of their homes by one form of unnatural catastrophe or another, and the same desperate quest for survival that may have sent the Huns crashing into Eastern Europe will send new hordes of refugees streaming across the landscape. Some of those hordes will have starting points within the United States—I expect mass migrations from Florida as the seas rise, and from the Southwest as drought finishes tightening its fingers around the Sun Belt’s throat—while others will come from further afield.

Five centuries from now, as a result, it’s entirely possible that most people in the upper Mississippi valley will be of Brazilian ancestry, and the inhabitants of the Hudson’s Bay region sing songs about their long-lost homes in drowned Florida, while languages descended from English may be spoken only in a region extending from New England to the isles of deglaciated Greenland. Nor will these people think of themselves in any of the national and ethnic terms that come so readily to our minds today. It’s by no means impossible that somebody may claim to be Presden of Meriga, Meer of Kanda, or what have you, just as Charlemagne and his successors claimed to be the emperors of Rome. Just as the Holy Roman Empire was proverbially neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, neither the office nor the nation at that future time is likely to have much of anything to do with its nominal equivalent today—and there will certainly be nations and ethnic groups in that time that have no parallel today.

One implication of these points may be worth noting here, as we move deeper into the stage of ethnic conflict. No matter what your ethnic group, dear reader, no matter how privileged or underprivileged it may happen to be in today’s world, it will almost certainly no longer exist as such when industrial civilization on this continent finishes the arc of the Long Descent. Such of your genes as make it through centuries of dieoff and ruthless Darwinian selection will be mixed with genes from many other nationalities and corners of the world, and it’s probably a safe bet that the people who carry those genes won’t call themselves by whatever label you call yourself. When a civilization falls the way ours is falling, that’s how things generally go.


In other news, I’m delighted to announce that my latest book, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, a novel based on the five-part scenario of US imperial collapse and dissolution posted here in 2012, will be hitting the bookshelves on October 31 of this year. Those of my readers who are interested may like to know that the publisher, Karnac Books, is offering a discount and free worldwide shipping on preorders. Those posts still hold this blog’s all-time record for page views, and the novel’s just as stark and fast-paced as the original posts; those of my readers who enjoy a good political-military thriller might want to check it out.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dark Age America: The Population Implosion

The three environmental shifts discussed in earlier posts in this sequence—the ecological impacts of a sharply warmer and dryer climate, the flooding of coastal regions due to rising sea levels, and the long-term consequences of industrial America’s frankly brainless dumping of persistent radiological and chemical poisons—all involve changes to the North American continent that will endure straight through the deindustrial dark age ahead, and will help shape the history of the successor cultures that will rise amid our ruins. For millennia to come, the peoples of North America will have to contend with drastically expanded deserts, coastlines that in some regions will be many miles further inland than they are today, and the presence of dead zones where nuclear or chemical wastes in the soil and water make human settlement impossible.

All these factors mean, among other things, that deindustrial North America will support many fewer people than it did in 1880 or so, before new agricultural technologies dependent on fossil fuels launched the population boom that is peaking in our time. Now of course this also implies that deindustrial North America will support many, many fewer people than it does today. For obvious reasons, it’s worth talking about the processes by which today’s seriously overpopulated North America will become the sparsely populated continent of the coming dark age—but that’s going to involve a confrontation with a certain kind of petrified irrelevancy all too common in our time.

Every few weeks, the comments page of this blog fields something insisting that I’m ignoring the role of overpopulation in the crisis of our time, and demanding that I say or do something about that. In point of fact, I’ve said quite a bit about overpopulation on this blog over the years, dating back to this post from 2007. What I’ve said about it, though, doesn’t follow either one of the two officially sanctioned scripts into which discussions of overpopulation are inevitably shoehorned in today’s industrial world; the comments I get are thus basically objecting to the fact that I’m not toeing the party line.

Like most cultural phenomena in today’s industrial world, the scripts just mentioned hew closely to the faux-liberal and faux-conservative narratives that dominate so much of contemporary thought. (I insist on the prefix, as what passes for political thought these days has essentially nothing to do with either liberalism or conservatism as these were understood as little as a few decades ago.) The scripts differ along the usual lines: that is to say, the faux-liberal script is well-meaning and ineffectual, while the faux-conservative script is practicable and evil.

Thus the faux-liberal script insists that overpopulation is a terrible problem, and we ought to do something about it, and the things we should do about it are all things that don’t work, won’t work, and have been being tried over and over again for decades without having the slightest effect on the situation. The faux-conservative script insists that overpopulation is a terrible problem, but only because it’s people of, ahem, the wrong skin color who are overpopulating, ahem, our country: that is, overpopulation means immigration, and immigration means let’s throw buckets of gasoline onto the flames of ethnic conflict, so it can play its standard role in ripping apart a dying civilization with even more verve than usual.

Overpopulation and immigration policy are not the same thing; neither are depopulation and the mass migrations of whole peoples for which German historians of the post-Roman dark ages coined the neat term völkerwanderung, which are the corresponding phenomena in eras of decline and fall. For that reason, the faux-conservative side of the debate, along with the usually unmentioned realities of immigration policy in today’s America and the far greater and more troubling realities of mass migration and ethnogenesis that will follow in due time, will be left for next week’s post. For now I want to talk about overpopulation as such, and therefore about the faux-liberal side of the debate and the stark realities of depopulation that are waiting in the future.

All this needs to be put in its proper context. In 1962, the year I was born, there were about three and a half billion human beings on this planet. Today, there are more than seven billion of us. That staggering increase in human numbers has played an immense and disastrous role in backing today’s industrial world into the corner where it now finds itself. Among all the forces driving us toward an ugly future, the raw pressure of human overpopulation, with the huge and rising resource requirements it entails, is among the most important.

That much is clear. What to do about it is something else again. You’ll still hear people insisting that campaigns to convince people to limit their reproduction voluntarily ought to do the trick, but such campaigns have been ongoing since well before I was born, and human numbers more than doubled anyway. It bears repeating that if a strategy has failed every time it’s been tried, insisting that we ought to do it again isn’t a useful suggestion. That applies not only to the campaigns just noted, but to all the other proposals to slow or stop population growth that have been tried repeatedly and failed just as repeatedly over the decades just past.

These days, a great deal of the hopeful talk around the subject of limits to overpopulation has refocused on what’s called the demographic transition: the process, visible in the population history of most of today’s industrial nations, whereby people start voluntarily reducing their reproduction when their income and access to resources rise above a certain level. It’s a real effect, though its causes are far from clear. The problem here is simply that the resource base that would make it possible for enough of the world’s population to have the income and access to resources necessary to trigger a worldwide demographic transition simply don’t exist.

As fossil fuels and a galaxy of other nonrenewable resources slide down the slope of depletion at varying rates, for that matter, it’s becoming increasingly hard for people in the industrial nations to maintain their familiar standards of living. It may be worth noting that this hasn’t caused a sudden upward spike in population growth in those countries where downward mobility has become most visible. The demographic transition, in other words, doesn’t work in reverse, and this points to a crucial fact that hasn’t necessarily been given the weight it deserves in conversations about overpopulation.

The vast surge in human numbers that dominates the demographic history of modern times is wholly a phenomenon of the industrial age. Other historical periods have seen modest population increases, but nothing on the same scale, and those have reversed themselves promptly when ecological limits came into play. Whatever the specific factors and forces that drove the population boom, then, it’s a pretty safe bet that the underlying cause was the one factor present in industrial civilization that hasn’t played a significant role in any other human society: the exploitation of vast quantities of extrasomatic energy—that is, energy that doesn’t come into play by means of human or animal muscle. Place the curve of increasing energy per capita worldwide next to the curve of human population worldwide, and the two move very nearly in lockstep: thus it’s fair to say that human beings, like yeast, respond to increased access to energy with increased reproduction.

Does that mean that we’re going to have to deal with soaring population worldwide for the foreseeable future? No, and hard planetary limits to resource extraction are the reasons why. Without the huge energy subsidy to agriculture contributed by fossil fuels, producing enough food to support seven billion people won’t be possible. We saw a preview of the consequences in 2008 and 2009, when the spike in petroleum prices caused a corresponding spike in food prices and a great many people around the world found themselves scrambling to get enough to eat on any terms at all. The riots and revolutions that followed grabbed the headlines, but another shift that happened around the same time deserves more attention: birth rates in many Third World countries decreased noticeably, and have continued to trend downward since then.

The same phenomenon can be seen elsewhere. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the formerly Soviet republics have seen steep declines in rates of live birth, life expectancy, and most other measures of public health, while death rates have climbed well above birth rates and stayed there. For that matter, since 2008, birth rates in the United States have dropped even further below the rate of replacement than they were before that time; immigration is the only reason the population of the United States doesn’t register declines year after year.

This is the wave of the future.  As fossil fuel and other resources continue to deplete, and economies dependent on those resources become less and less able to provide people with the necessities of life, the population boom will turn into a population bust. The base scenario in 1972’s The Limits to Growth, still the most accurate (and thus inevitably the most vilified) model of the future into which we’re stumbling blindly just now, put the peak of global population somewhere around 2030: that is, sixteen years from now. Recent declines in birth rates in areas that were once hotbeds of population growth, such as Latin America and the Middle East, can be seen as the leveling off that always occurs in a population curve before decline sets in.

That decline is likely to go very far indeed. That’s partly a matter of straightforward logic: since global population has been artificially inflated by pouring extrasomatic energy into boosting the food supply and providing other necessary resources to human beings, the exhaustion of economically extractable reserves of the fossil fuels that made that process possible will knock the props out from under global population figures. Still, historical parallels also have quite a bit to offer here: extreme depopulation is a common feature of the decline and fall of civilizations, with up to 95% population loss over the one to three centuries that the fall of a civilization usually takes.

Suggest that to people nowadays and, once you get past the usual reactions of denial and disbelief, the standard assumption is that population declines so severe could only happen if there were catastrophes on a truly gargantuan scale. That’s an easy assumption to make, but it doesn’t happen to be true. Just as it didn’t take vast public orgies of copulation and childbirth to double the planet’s population over the last half-century, it wouldn’t take equivalent exercises in mass death to halve the planet’s population over the same time frame. The ordinary processes of demography can do the trick all by themselves.

Let’s explore that by way of a thought experiment. Between family, friends, coworkers, and the others that you meet in the course of your daily activities, you probably know something close to a hundred people. Every so often, in the ordinary course of events, one of them dies—depending on the age and social status of the people you know, that might happen once a year, once every two years, or what have you. Take a moment to recall the most recent death in your social circle, and the one before that, to help put the rest of the thought experiment in context.

Now imagine that from this day onward, among the hundred people you know, one additional person—one person more than you would otherwise expect to die—dies every year, while the rate of birth remains the same as it is now. Imagine that modest increase in the death rate affecting the people you know. One year, an elderly relative of yours doesn’t wake up one morning; the next, a barista at the place where you get coffee on the way to work dies of cancer; the year after that, a coworker’s child comes down with an infection the doctors can’t treat, and so on.  A noticeable shift? Granted, but it’s not Armageddon; you attend a few more funerals than you’re used to, make friends with the new barista, and go about your life until one of those additional deaths is yours.

Now take that process and extrapolate it out. (Those of my readers who have the necessary math skills should take the time to crunch the numbers themselves.) Over the course of three centuries, an increase in the crude death rate of one per cent per annum, given an unchanged birth rate, is sufficient to reduce a population to five per cent of its original level. Vast catastrophes need not apply; of the traditional four horsemen, War, Famine, and Pestilence can sit around drinking beer and playing poker. The fourth horseman, in the shape of a modest change in crude death rates, can do the job all by himself.

Now imagine the same scenario, except that there are two additional deaths each year in your social circle, rather than one.  That would be considerably more noticeable, but it still doesn’t look like the end of the world—at least until you do the math. An increase in the crude death rate of two per cent per annum, given an unchanged birth rate, is enough to reduce a population to five per cent of its original level within a single century. In global terms, if world population peaks around 8 billion in 2030, a decline on that scale would leave four hundred million people on the planet by 2130.

In the real world, of course, things are not as simple or smooth as they are in the thought experiment just offered. Birth rates are subject to complex pressures and vary up and down depending on the specific pressures a population faces, and even small increases in infant and child mortality have a disproportionate effect by removing potential breeding pairs from the population before they can reproduce. Meanwhile, population declines are rarely anything like so even as  the thought experiment suggests; those other three horsemen, in particular, tend to get bored of their poker game at intervals and go riding out to give the guy with the scythe some help with the harvest. War, famine, and pestilence are common events in the decline and fall of a civilization, and the twilight of the industrial world is likely to get its fair share of them.

Thus it probably won’t be a matter of two more deaths a year, every year. Instead, one year, war breaks out, most of the young men in town get drafted, and half of them come back in body bags.  Another year, after a string of bad harvests, the flu comes through, and a lot of people who would have shaken it off under better conditions are just that little bit too malnourished to survive.  Yet another year, a virus shaken out of its tropical home by climate change and ecosystem disruption goes through town, and fifteen per cent of the population dies in eight ghastly months. That’s the way population declines happen in history.

In the twilight years of the Roman world, for example, a steady demographic contraction was overlaid by civil wars, barbarian invasions, economic crises, famines, and epidemics; the total population decline varied significantly from one region to another, but even the relatively stable parts of the Eastern Empire seem to have had around a 50% loss of population, while some areas of the Western Empire suffered far more drastic losses; Britain in particular was transformed from a rich, populous, and largely urbanized province to a land of silent urban ruins and small, scattered villages of subsistence farmers where even so simple a technology as wheel-thrown pottery became a lost art.

The classic lowland Maya are another good example along the same lines.  Hammered by climate change and topsoil loss, the Maya heartland went through a rolling collapse a century and a half in length that ended with population levels maybe five per cent of what they’d been at the start of the Terminal Classic period, and most of the great Maya cities became empty ruins rapidly covered by the encroaching jungle. Those of my readers who have seen pictures of tropical foliage burying the pyramids of Tikal and Copan might want to imagine scenes of the same kind in the ruins of Atlanta and Austin a few centuries from now. That’s the kind of thing that happens when an urbanized society suffers severe population loss during the decline and fall of a civilization.

That, in turn, is what has to be factored into any realistic forecast of dark age America: there will be many, many fewer people inhabiting North America a few centuries from now than there are today.  Between the depletion of the fossil fuel resources necessary to maintain today’s hugely inflated numbers and the degradation of North America’s human carrying capacity by climate change, sea level rise, and persistent radiological and chemical pollution, the continent simply won’t be able to support that many people. The current total is about 470 million—35 million in Canada, 314 million in the US, and 121 million in Mexico, according to the latest figures I was able to find—and something close to five per cent of that—say, 20 to 25 million—might be a reasonable midrange estimate for the human population of the North American continent when the population implosion finally bottoms out a few centuries from now.

Now of course those 20 to 25 million people won’t be scattered evenly across the continent. There will be very large regions—for example, the nearly lifeless, sun-blasted wastelands that climate change will make of the southern Great Plains and the Sonoran desert—where human settlement will be as sparse as it is today in the bleakest parts of the Sahara or the Rub’al Khali of central Arabia. There will be other areas—for example, the Great Lakes region and the southern half of Mexico’s great central valley—where population will be relatively dense by Dark Age standards, and towns of modest size may even thrive if they happen to be in defensible locations.

The nomadic herding folk of the midwestern prairies, the villages of the Gulf Coast jungles, and the other human ecologies that will spring up in the varying ecosystems of deindustrial North America will all gradually settle into a more or less stable population level, at which births and deaths balance each other and the consumption of resources stays at or below sustainable levels of production. That’s what happens in human societies that don’t have the dubious advantage of a torrent of nonrenewable energy reserves to distract them temporarily from the hard necessities of survival.

It’s getting to that level that’s going to be a bear. The mechanisms of population contraction are simple enough, and as suggested above, they can have a dramatic impact on historical time scales without cataclysmic impact on the scale of individual lives. No, the difficult part of population contraction is its impact on economic patterns geared to continuous population growth. That’s part of a more general pattern, of course—the brutal impact of the end of growth on an economy that depends on growth to function at all—which has been discussed on this blog several times already, and will require close study in the present sequence of posts.

That examination will begin after we’ve considered the second half of the demography of dark age America: the role of mass migration and ethnogenesis in the birth of the cultures that will emerge on this continent when industrial civilization is a fading memory. That very challenging discussion will occupy next week’s post.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Heading Toward The Sidewalk

Talking about historical change is one thing when the changes under discussion are at some convenient remove in the past or the future. It’s quite another when the changes are already taking place. That’s one of the things that adds complexity to the project of this blog, because the decline and fall of modern industrial civilization isn’t something that might take place someday, if X or Y or Z happens or doesn’t happen; it’s under way now, all around us, and a good many of the tumults of our time are being driven by the unmentionable but inescapable fact that the process of decline is beginning to pick up speed.

Those tumults are at least as relevant to this blog’s project as the comparable events in the latter years of dead civilizations, and so it’s going to be necessary now and then to pause the current sequence of posts, set aside considerations of the far future for a bit, and take a look at what’s happening here and now. This is going to be one of those weeks, because a signal I’ve been expecting for a couple of years now has finally showed up, and its appearance means that real trouble may be imminent.

This has admittedly happened in a week when the sky is black with birds coming home to roost. I suspect that most of my readers have been paying at least some attention to the Ebola epidemic now spreading across West Africa. Over the last week, the World Health Organization has revealed that official statistics on the epidemic’s toll are significantly understated, the main nongovernmental organization fighting Ebola has admitted that the situation is out of anyone’s control, and a series of events neatly poised between absurdity and horror—a riot in one of Monrovia’s poorest slums directed at an emergency quarantine facility, in which looters made off with linens and bedding contaminated with the Ebola virus, and quarantined patients vanished into the crowd—may shortly plunge Liberia into scenes of a kind not witnessed since the heyday of the Black Death. The possibility that this outbreak may become a global pandemic, while still small, can no longer be dismissed out of hand.

Meanwhile, closer to home, what has become a routine event in today’s America—the casual killing of an unarmed African-American man by the police—has blown up in a decidedly nonroutine fashion, with imagery reminiscent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square being enacted night after night in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. The culture of militarization and unaccountability that’s entrenched in urban police forces in the United States has been displayed in a highly unflattering light, as police officers dressed for all the world like storm troopers on the set of a bad science fiction movie did their best to act the part, tear-gassing and beating protesters, reporters, and random passersby in an orgy of jackbooted enthusiasm blatant enough that Tea Party Republicans have started to make worried speeches about just how closely this resembles the behavior of a police state.

If the police keep it up, the Arab Spring of a few years back may just be paralleled by an American Autumn. Even if some lingering spark of common sense on the part of state and local authorities heads off that possibility, the next time a white police officer guns down an African-American man for no particular reason—and there will be a next time; such events, as noted above, are routine in the United States these days—the explosion that follows will be even more severe, and the risk that such an explosion may end up driving the emergence of a domestic insurgency is not small. I noted in a post a couple of years back that the American way of war pretty much guarantees that any country conquered by our military will pup an insurgency in short order thereafter; there’s a great deal of irony in the thought that the importation of the same model of warfare into police practice in the US may have exactly the same effect here.

It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that the sign I noted is neither of these things. No, it’s not the big volcano in Iceland that’s showing worrying signs of blowing its top, either. It’s an absurdly little thing—a minor book review in an otherwise undistinguished financial-advice blog—and it matters only because it’s a harbinger of something considerably more important.

A glance at the past may be useful here. On September 9, 1929, no less a financial periodical than Barron’s took time off from its usual cheerleading of the stock market’s grand upward movement to denounce an investment analyst named Roger Babson in heated terms. Babson’s crime? Suggesting that the grand upward movement just mentioned was part of a classic speculative bubble, and the bubble’s inevitable bust would cause an economic depression. Babson had been saying this sort of thing all through the stock market boom of the late 1920s, and until that summer, the mainstream financial media simply ignored him, as they ignored everyone else whose sense of economic reality hadn’t gone out to lunch and forgotten to come back.

For those who followed the media, in fact, the summer and fall of 1929 were notable mostly for the fact that a set of beliefs that most people took for granted—above all else, the claim that the stock market could keep on rising indefinitely—suddenly were being loudly defended all over the place, even though next to nobody was attacking them. The June issue of The American Magazine featured an interview with financier Bernard Baruch, insisting that “the economic condition of the world seems on the verge of a great forward movement.” In the July 8 issue of Barron’s, similarly, an article insisted that people who worried about how much debt was propping up the market didn’t understand the role of broker’s loans as a major new investment outlet for corporate money.

As late as October 15, when the great crash was only days away, Professor Irving Fisher of Yale’s economics department made his famous announcement to the media: “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” That sort of puffery was business as usual, then as now. Assaulting the critics of the bubble in print, by name, was not. It was only when the market was sliding toward the abyss of the 1929 crash that financial columnists publicly trained their rhetorical guns on the handful of people who had been saying all along that the boom would inevitably bust.

That’s a remarkably common feature of speculative bubbles, and could be traced in any number of historical examples, starting with the tulip bubble in the 17th century Netherlands and going on from there. Some of my readers may well have experienced the same thing for themselves in the not too distant past, during the last stages of the gargantuan real estate bubble that popped so messily in 2008. I certainly did, and a glance back at that experience will help clarify the implications of the signal I noticed in the week just past.

Back when the real estate bubble was soaring to vertiginous and hopelessly unsustainable heights, I used to track its progress on a couple of news aggregator sites, especially Keith Brand’s lively HousingPanic blog. Now and then, as the bubble peaked and began losing air, I would sit down with a glass of scotch, a series of links to the latest absurd comments by real estate promoters, and my copy of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929—the source, by the way, of the anecdotes cited above—and enjoyed watching the rhetoric used to insist that the 2008 bubble wasn’t a bubble duplicate, in some cases word for word, the rhetoric used for the same purpose in 1929.

All the anti-bubble blogs fielded a steady stream of hostile comments from real estate investors who apparently couldn’t handle the thought that anyone might question their guaranteed ticket to unearned wealth, and Brand’s in particular saw no shortage of bare-knuckle verbal brawls. It was only in the last few months before the bubble burst, though, that pro-bubble blogs started posting personal attacks on Brand and his fellow critics, denouncing them by name in heated and usually inaccurate terms. At the time, I noted the parallel with the Barron’s attack on Roger Babson, and wondered if it meant the same thing; the events that followed showed pretty clearly that it did.

That same point may just have arrived in the fracking bubble—unsurprisingly, since that has followed the standard trajectory of speculative booms in all other respects so far. For some time now, the media has been full of proclamations about America’s allegely limitless petroleum supply, which resemble nothing so much as the airy claims about stocks made by Bernard Baruch and Irving Fisher back in 1929. Week after week, bloggers and commentators have belabored the concept of peak oil, finding new and ingenious ways to insist that it must somehow be possible to extract infinite amounts of oil from a finite planet; oddly enough, though it’s rare for anyone to speak up for peak oil on these forums, the arguments leveled against it have been getting louder and more shrill as time passes. Until recently, though, I hadn’t encountered the personal attacks that announce the imminence of the bust.

That was before this week. On August 11th, a financial-advice website hosted a fine example of the species, and rather to my surprise—I’m hardly the most influential or widely read critic of the fracking bubble, after all—it was directed at me.

Mind you, I have no objection to hostile reviews of my writing. A number of books by other people have come in for various kinds of rough treatment on this blog, and turnabout here as elsewhere is fair play. I do prefer reviewers, hostile or otherwise, to take the time to read a book of mine before they review it, but that’s not something any writer can count on; reviewers who clearly haven’t so much as opened the cover of the book on which they pass judgment have been the target of barbed remarks in literary circles since at least the 18th century. Still, a review of a book the reviewer hasn’t read is one thing, and a review of a book the author hasn’t written and the publisher hasn’t published is something else again.

That’s basically the case here. The reviewer, a stock market blogger named Andew McKillop, set out to critique a newly re-edited version of my 2008 book The Long Descent. That came as quite a surprise to me, as well as to New Society Publications, the publisher of the earlier book, since no such reissue exists. The Long Descent remains in print in its original edition, and my six other books on peak oil and the future of industrial society are, ahem, different books.

My best guess is that McKillop spotted my new title Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America in a bookshop window, and simply jumped to the conclusion that it must be a new release of the earlier book. I’m still not sure whether the result counts as a brilliant bit of surrealist performance art or a new low in what we still jokingly call journalistic ethics; in either case, it’s definitely broken new ground. Still, I hope that McKillop does better research for the people who count on him for stock advice.

Given that starting point, the rest of the review is about what you would expect. I gather that McKillop read a couple of online reviews of The Long Descent and a couple more of Decline and Fall, skimmed over a few randomly chosen posts on this blog, tossed the results together all anyhow, and jumped to the conclusion that the resulting mess was what the book was about. The result is quite a lively little bricolage of misunderstandings, non sequiturs, and straightforward fabrications—I invite anyone who cares to make the attempt to point out the place in my writings, for example, where I contrast catabolic collapse with “anabolic collapse,” whatever on earth that latter might be.

There’s a certain wry amusement to be had from going through the review and trying to figure out exactly how McKillop might have gotten this or that bit of misinformation wedged into his brain, but I’ll leave that as a party game for my readers. The point I’d like to make here is that the appearance of this attempted counterblast in a mainstream financial blog is a warning sign. It suggests that the fracking boom, like previous bubbles when they reached the shoot-the-messenger stage, may well be teetering on the brink of a really spectacular crash—and it’s not the only such sign, either.

The same questions about debt that were asked about the stock market in 1929 and the housing market in 2008 are being asked now, with increasing urgency, about the immense volume of junk bonds that are currently propping up the shale boom. Meanwhile gas and oil companies are having to drill ever more frantically and invest ever more money to keep production rates from dropping like a rock Get past the vacuous handwaving about “Saudi America,” and it’s embarrassingly clear that the fracking boom is simply one more debt-fueled speculative orgy destined for one more messy bust. It’s disguised as an energy revolution in exactly the same way that the real estate bubble was disguised as a housing revolution, the tech-stock bubble as a technological revolution, and so on back through the annals of financial delusion as far as you care to go.

Sooner or later—and much more likely sooner than later—the fracking bubble is going to pop. Just how and when that will happen is impossible to know in advance. Even making an intelligent guess at this point would require a detailed knowledge of which banks and investment firms have gotten furthest over their heads in shale leases and the like, which petroleum and natural gas firms have gone out furthest on a financial limb, and so on. That’s the kind of information that the companies in question like to hide from one another, not to mention the general public; it’s thus effectively inaccessible to archdruids, which means that we’ll just have to wait for the bankruptcies, the panic selling, and the wet thud of financiers hitting Wall Street sidewalks to find out which firms won the fiscal irresponsibility sweepstakes this time around.

One way or another, the collapse of the fracking boom bids fair to deliver a body blow to the US economy, at a time when most sectors of that economy have yet to recover from the bruising they received at the hands of the real estate bubble and bust. Depending on how heavily and cluelessly foreign banks and investors have been sucked into the boom—again, hard to say without inside access to closely guarded financial information—the popping of the bubble could sucker-punch national economies elsewhere in the world as well. Either way, it’s going to be messy, and the consequences will likely include a second helping of the same unsavory stew of bailouts for the rich, austerity for the poor, bullying of weaker countries by their stronger neighbors, and the like, that was dished up with such reckless abandon in the aftermath of the 2008 real estate bust. Nor is any of this going to make it easier to deal with potential pandemics, simmering proto-insurgencies in the American heartland, or any of the other entertaining consequences of our headfirst collision with the sidewalks of reality.

The consequences may go further than this. The one detail that sets the fracking bubble apart from the real estate bubble, the tech stock bubble, and their kin further back in economic history is that fracking wasn’t just sold to investors as a way to get rich quick; it was also sold to them, and to the wider public as well, as a way to evade the otherwise inexorable reality of peak oil. 2008, it bears remembering, was not just the year that the real estate bubble crashed, and dragged much of the global economy down with it; it was also the year when all those prophets of perpetual business as usual who insisted that petroleum would never break $60 a barrel or so got to eat crow, deep-fried in light sweet crude, when prices spiked upwards of $140 a barrel. All of a sudden, all those warnings about peak oil that experts had been issuing since the 1950s became a great deal harder to dismiss out of hand.

The fracking bubble thus had mixed parentage; its father may have been the same merciless passion for fleecing the innocent that always sets the cold sick heart of Wall Street aflutter, but its mother was the uneasy dawn of recognition that by ignoring decades of warnings and recklessly burning through the Earth’s finite reserves of fossil fuels just as fast as they could be extracted, the industrial world has backed itself into a corner from which the only way out leads straight down. White’s Law, one of the core concepts of human ecology, points out that economic development is directly correlated with energy per capita; as depletion overtakes production and energy per capita begins to decline, the inevitable result is a long era of economic contraction, in which a galaxy of economic and cultural institutions predicated on continued growth will stop working, and those whose wealth and influence depend on those institutions will be left with few choices short of jumping out a Wall Street window.

The last few years of meretricious handwaving about fracking as the salvation of our fossil-fueled society may thus mark something rather more significant than another round of the pervasive financial fraud that’s become the lifeblood of the US economy in these latter days. It’s one of the latest—and maybe, just maybe, one of the last—of the mental evasions that people in the industrial world have used in the futile but fateful attempt to pretend that pursuing limitless economic growth on a finite and fragile planet is anything other than a guaranteed recipe for disaster. When the fracking bubble goes to its inevitable fate, and most of a decade of babbling about limitless shale oil takes its proper place in the annals of human idiocy, it’s just possible that some significant number of people will realize that the universe is under no obligation to provide us will all the energy and other resources we want, just because we happen to want them. I wouldn’t bet the farm on that, but I think the possibility is there.

One swallow does not a summer make, mind you, and one fumbled attempt at a hostile book review on one website doesn’t prove that the same stage in the speculative bubble cycle that saw frantic denunciations flung at Roger Babson and Keith Brand—the stage that comes immediately before the crash—has arrived this time around. I would encourage my readers to watch for similar denunciations aimed at more influential and respectable fracking-bubble critics such as Richard Heinberg or Kurt Cobb. Once those start showing up, hang onto your hat; it’s going to be a wild ride.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dark Age America: A Bitter Legacy

Civilizations normally leave a damaged environment behind them when they fall, and ours shows every sign of following that wearily familiar pattern. The nature and severity of the ecological damage a civilization leaves behind, though, depend on two factors, one obvious, the other less so. The obvious factor derives from the nature of the technologies the civilization deployed in its heyday; the less obvious one depends on how many times those same technologies had been through the same cycle of rise and fall before the civilization under discussion got to them.

There’s an important lesson in this latter factor. Human technologies almost always start off their trajectory through time as environmental disasters looking for a spot marked X, which they inevitably find, and then have the rough edges knocked off them by centuries or millennia of bitter experience. When our species first developed the technologies that enabled hunting bands to take down big game animals, the result was mass slaughter and the extinction of entire species of megafauna, followed by famine and misery; rinse and repeat, and you get the exquisite ecological balance that most hunter-gatherer societies maintained in historic times. In much the same way, early field agriculture yielded bumper crops of topsoil loss and subsistence failure to go along with its less reliable yields of edible grain, and the hard lessons from that experience have driven the rise of more sustainable agricultural systems—a process completed in our time with the emergence of organic agricultural methods that build soil rather than depleting it.

Any brand new mode of human subsistence is thus normally cruising for a bruising, and will get it in due time at the hands of the biosphere. That’s not precisely good news for modern industrial civilization, because ours is a brand new mode of human subsistence; it’s the first human society ever to depend almost entirely on extrasomatic energy—energy, that is, that doesn’t come from human or animal muscles fueled by food crops. In my book The Ecotechnic Future, I’ve suggested that industrial civilization is simply the first and most wasteful of a new mode of human society, the technic society. Eventually, I proposed, technic societies will achieve the same precise accommodation to ecological reality that hunter-gatherer societies worked out long ago, and agricultural societies have spent the last eight thousand years or so pursuing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help us much just now.

Modern industrial civilization, in point of fact, has been stunningly clueless in its relationship with the planetary cycles that keep us all alive. Like those early bands of roving hunters who slaughtered every mammoth they could find and then looked around blankly for something to eat, we’ve drawn down the finite stocks of fossil fuels on this planet without the least concern about what the future would bring—well, other than the occasional pious utterance of thoughtstopping mantras of the “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something” variety. That’s not the only thing we’ve drawn down recklessly, of course, and the impact of our idiotically short-term thinking on our long-term prospects will be among the most important forces shaping the next five centuries of North America’s future.

Let’s start with one of the most obvious: topsoil, the biologically active layer of soil that can support food crops. On average, as a result of today’s standard agricultural methods, North America’s arable land loses almost three tons of topsoil from each cultivated acre every single year. Most of the topsoil that made North America the breadbasket of the 20th century world is already gone, and at the current rate of loss, all of it will be gone by 2075. That would be bad enough if we could rely on artificial fertilizer to make up for the losses, but by 2075 that won’t be an option: the entire range of chemical fertilizers are made from nonrenewable resources—natural gas is the main feedstock for nitrate fertilizers, rock phosphate for phosphate fertilizers, and so on—and all of these are depleting fast.

Topsoil loss driven by bad agricultural practices is actually quite a common factor in the collapse of civilizations. Sea-floor cores in the waters around Greece, for example, show a spike in sediment deposition from rapidly eroding topsoil right around the end of the Mycenean civilization, and another from the latter years of the Roman Empire. If archeologists thousands of years from now try the same test, they’ll find yet another eroded topsoil layer at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the legacy of an agricultural system that put quarterly profits ahead of the relatively modest changes that might have preserved the soil for future generations.

The methods of organic agriculture mentioned earlier could help very significantly with this problem, since those include techniques for preserving existing topsoil, and rebuilding depleted soil at a rate considerably faster than nature’s pace. To make any kind of difference, though, those methods would have to be deployed on a very broad scale, and then passed down through the difficult years ahead. Lacking that, even where desertification driven by climate change doesn’t make farming impossible, a very large part of today’s North American farm belt will likely be unable to support crops for centuries or millennia to come. Eventually, the same slow processes that replenished the soil on land scraped bare by the ice age glaciers will do the same thing to land stripped of topsoil by industrial farming, but “eventually” will not come quickly enough to spare our descendants many hungry days.

The same tune in a different key is currently being played across the world’s oceans, and as a result my readers can look forward, in the not too distant future, to tasting the last piece of seafood they will ever eat. Conservatively managed, the world’s fish stocks could have produced large yields indefinitely, but they were not conservatively managed; where regulation was attempted, political and economic pressure consistently drove catch limits above sustainable levels, and of course cheating was pervasive and the penalties for being caught were merely another cost of doing business. Fishery after fishery has accordingly collapsed, and the increasingly frantic struggle to feed seven billion hungry mouths is unlikely to leave any of those that remain intact for long.

Worse, all of this is happening in oceans that are being hammered by other aspects of our collective ecological stupidity. Global climate change, by boosting the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, is acidifying the oceans and causing sweeping shifts in oceanic food chains. Those shifts involve winners as well as losers; where calcium-shelled diatoms and corals are suffering population declines, seaweeds and algae, which are not so sensitive to changes in the acid-alkaline balance, are thriving on the increased CO2 in the water—but the fish that feed on seaweeds and algae are not the same as those that feed on diatoms and corals, and the resulting changes are whipsawing ocean ecologies.

Close to shore, toxic effluents from human industry and agriculture are also adding to the trouble. The deep oceans, all things considered, offer sparse pickings for most saltwater creatures; the vast majority of ocean life thrives within a few hundred miles of land, where rivers, upwelling zones, and the like provide nutrients in relative abundance. We’re already seeing serious problems with toxic substances concentrating up through oceanic food chains; unless communities close to the water’s edge respond to rising sea levels with consummate care, hauling every source of toxic chemicals out of reach of the waters, that problem is only going to grow worse. Different species react differently to this or that toxin; some kind of aquatic ecosystem will emerge and thrive even in the most toxic estuaries of deindustrial North America, but it’s unlikely that those ecosystems will produce anything fit for human beings to eat, and making the attempt may not be particularly good for one’s health.

Over the long run, that, too, will right itself. Bioaccumulated toxins will end up entombed in the muck on the ocean’s floor, providing yet another interesting data point for the archeologists of the far future; food chains and ecosystems will reorganize, quite possibly in very different forms from the ones they have now. Changes in water temperature, and potentially in the patterns of ocean currents, will bring unfamiliar species into contact with one another, and living things that survive the deindustrial years in isolated refugia will expand into their former range. These are normal stages in the adaptation of ecosystems to large-scale shocks. Still, those processes of renewal take time, and the deindustrial dark ages ahead of us will be long gone before the seas are restored to biological abundance.

Barren lands and empty seas aren’t the only bitter legacies we’re leaving our descendants, of course. One of the others has received quite a bit of attention on the apocalyptic end of the peak oil blogosphere for several years now—since March 11, 2011, to be precise, when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster got under way. Nuclear power exerts a curious magnetism on the modern mind, drawing it toward extremes in one direction or the other; the wildly unrealistic claims about its limitless potential to power the future that have been made by its supporters are neatly balanced by the wildly unrealistic claims about its limitless potential as a source of human extinction on the other. Negotiating a path between those extremes is not always an easy matter.

In both cases, though, it’s easy enough to clear away at least some of the confusion by turning to documented facts. It so happens, for instance, that no nation on Earth has ever been able to launch or maintain a nuclear power program without huge and continuing subsidies. Nuclear power never pays for itself; absent a steady stream of government handouts, it doesn’t make enough economic sense to attract enough private investment to cover its costs, much less meet the huge and so far unmet expenses of nuclear waste storage; and in the great majority of cases, the motive behind the program, and the subsidies, is pretty clearly the desire of the local government to arm itself with nuclear weapons at any cost. Thus the tired fantasy of cheap, abundant nuclear power needs to be buried alongside the Eisenhower-era propagandists who dreamed it up in the first place.

It also happens, of course, that there have been quite a few catastrophic nuclear accidents since the dawn of the atomic age just over seventy years ago, especially but not only in the former Soviet Union. Thus it’s no secret what the consequences are when a reactor melts down, or when mismanaged nuclear waste storage facilities catch fire and spew radioactive smoke across the countryside. What results is an unusually dangerous industrial accident, on a par with the sudden collapse of a hydroelectric dam or a chemical plant explosion that sends toxic gases drifting into a populated area; it differs from these mostly in that the contamination left behind by certain nuclear accidents remains dangerous for many years after it comes drifting down from the sky.

There are currently 69 operational nuclear power plants scattered unevenly across the face of North America, with 127 reactors among them; there are also 48 research reactors, most of them much smaller and less vulnerable to meltdown than the power plant reactors. Most North American nuclear power plants store spent fuel rods in pools of cooling water onsite, since the spent rods continue to give off heat and radiation and there’s no long term storage for high-level nuclear waste. Neither a reactor nor a fuel rod storage pool can be left untended for long without serious trouble, and a great many things—including natural disasters and human stupidity—can push them over into meltdown, in the case of reactors, or conflagration, in the case of spent fuel rods. In either case, or both, you’ll get a plume of toxic, highly radioactive smoke drifting in the wind, and a great many people immediately downwind will die quickly or slowly, depending on the details and the dose.

It’s entirely reasonable to predict that this is going to happen to some of those 175 reactors. In a world racked by climate change, resource depletion, economic disintegration, political and social chaos, mass movements of populations, and the other normal features of the decline and fall of a civilization and the coming of a dark age, the short straw is going to be drawn sooner or later, and serious nuclear disasters are going to happen. That doesn’t justify the claim that every one of those reactors is going to melt down catastrophically, every one of the spent-fuel storage facilities is going to catch fire, and so on—though of course that claim does make for more colorful rhetoric.

In the real world, for reasons I’ll be discussing further in this series of posts, we don’t face the kind of sudden collapse that could make all the lights go out at once. Some nations, regions, and local areas within regions will slide faster than others, or be deliberately sacrificed so that resources of one kind or another can be used somewhere else. As long as governments retain any kind of power at all, keeping nuclear facilities from adding to the ongoing list of disasters will be high on their agendas; shutting down reactors that are no longer safe to operate is one step they can certainly do, and so is hauling spent fuel rods out of the pools and putting them somewhere less immediately vulnerable.

It’s probably a safe bet that the further we go along the arc of decline and fall, the further these decommissioning exercises will stray from the optimum. I can all too easily imagine fuel rods being hauled out of their pools by condemned criminals or political prisoners, loaded on flatbed rail cars, taken to some desolate corner of the expanding western deserts, and tipped one at a time into trenches dug in the desert soil, then covered over with a few meters of dirt and left to the elements. Sooner or later the radionuclides will leak out, and that desolate place will become even more desolate, a place of rumors and legends where those who go don’t come back.

Meanwhile, the reactors and spent-fuel pools that don’t get shut down even in so cavalier a fashion will become the focal points of dead zones of a slightly different kind. The facilities themselves will be off limits for some thousands of years, and the invisible footprints left behind by the plumes of smoke and dust will be dangerous for centuries. The vagaries of deposition and erosion are impossible to predict; in areas downwind from Chernobyl or some of the less famous Soviet nuclear accidents, one piece of overgrown former farmland may be relatively safe while another a quarter hour’s walk away may still set a Geiger counter clicking at way-beyond-safe rates. Here I imagine cow skulls on poles, or some such traditional marker, warning the unwary that they stand on the edge of accursed ground.

It’s important to keep in mind that not all the accursed ground in deindustrial North America will be the result of nuclear accidents. There are already areas on the continent so heavily contaminated with toxic pollutants of less glow-in-the-dark varieties that anyone who attempts to grow food or drink the water there can count on a short life and a wretched death. As the industrial system spirals toward its end, and those environmental protections that haven’t been gutted already get flung aside in the frantic quest to keep the system going just a little bit longer, spills and other industrial accidents are very likely to become a good deal more common than they are already.

There are methods of soil and ecosystem bioremediation that can be done with very simple technologies—for example, plants that concentrate toxic metals in their tissues so it can be hauled away to a less dangerous site, and fungi that break down organic toxins—but if they’re to do any good at all, these will have to be preserved and deployed in the teeth of massive social changes and equally massive hardships. Lacking that, and it’s a considerable gamble at this point, the North America of the future will be spotted with areas where birth defects are a common cause of infant mortality and it will be rare to see anyone over the age of forty or so without the telltale signs of cancer.

There’s a bitter irony in the fact that cancer, a relatively rare disease a century and a half ago—most childhood cancers in particular were so rare that individual cases were written up in medical journals —has become the signature disease of industrial society, expanding its occurrence and death toll in lockstep with our mindless dumping of chemical toxins and radioactive waste into the environment. What, after all, is cancer? A disease of uncontrolled growth.

I sometimes wonder if our descendants in the deindustrial world will appreciate that irony. One way or another, I have no doubt that they’ll have their own opinions about the bitter legacy we’re leaving them. Late at night, when sleep is far away, I sometimes remember Ernest Thompson Seton’s heartrending 1927 prose poem “A Lament,” in which he recalled the beauty of the wild West he had known and the desolation of barbed wire and bleached bones he had seen it become. He projected the same curve of devastation forward until it rebounded on its perpetrators—yes, that would be us—and imagined the voyagers of some other nation landing centuries from now at the ruins of Manhattan, and slowly piecing together the story of a vanished people:

Their chiefs and wiser ones shall know
That here was a wastrel race, cruel and sordid,
Weighed and found wanting,
Once mighty but forgotten now.
And on our last remembrance stone,
These wiser ones will write of us:
They desolated their heritage,
They wrote their own doom.

I suspect, though, that our descendants will put things in language a good deal sharper than this. As they think back on the people of the 20th and early 21st centuries who gave them the barren soil and ravaged fisheries, the chaotic weather and rising oceans, the poisoned land and water, the birth defects and cancers that embitter their lives, how will they remember us? I think I know. I think we will be the orcs and Nazgûl of their legends, the collective Satan of their mythology, the ancient race who ravaged the earth and everything on it so they could enjoy lives of wretched excess at the future’s expense. They will remember us as evil incarnate—and from their perspective, it’s by no means easy to dispute that judgment.