Saturday, January 2, 2016

Living In A Place Named "Predicament"

Explosion Kitty walking away from the Zombie 

And now in this post we return to the roots of this blog (and we show how a discussion of national and cultural abnormal psychology relates to those roots). This blog began as a diary of my observations of the changes in mainstream American society which are being caused by the decline in energy and natural resources needed by the global industrial economy. Personally, I think some of my earliest posts on the topic were rather amateurish, due to the fact that I didn't quite understand at first everything I was looking at. (Petroleum geology, in particular, is not my forte.) But even people who were born yesterday can catch up a bit by staying up all night studying. ;)

When writers seriously discuss resource depletion, climate change and their likely effects on the global industrial economy, some readers tend to react as if they'd just met a conspiracy theory/zombie apocalypse nut. But these subjects actually have a very solid technical background. Let's explore that background for a moment.

First, there have been thinkers from way back who understood that the earth is finite, and who accepted the possibility that humans might one day bump against the limits of the earth's resources. Two 19th century names come to mind: Thomas Malthus postulated that the human population could grow to a level that would not sustain extravagant lifestyles. Svante Arrhenius postulated that human industrial activity could release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in such quantities that it could cause significant long-term changes to the global climate. Malthus and Arrhenius did not have the benefit of computer modeling to validate their assumptions. But in the 1970's, there were scientists who did have that benefit. A group of these scientists assembled under the auspices of the Club of Rome to study possible future scenarios for the global industrial society from the 1970's to 2100. They discovered a number of scenarios in which the industrial economy would run into hard constraints related to the amount of virgin resources which could be extracted, and the amount of industrial waste which could be dumped into the environment without serious side effects. Running into those constraints would lead to economic contraction and population distress. Their findings were published in a volume titled The Limits To Growth, which has been periodically updated to the present. The First World in general, and the United States in particular, did not heed the warnings of The Limits To Growth, and so now we see the beginnings of our society running into hard constraints.

One of those constraints deserves special mention. In the 1950's, M. King Hubbert, a petroleum geologist for the Shell Oil Company, derived a simple formula from calculus to model the flow rate of an oil field as a function of its proven reserves. (See this also.)  The implications of this formula led Hubbert to conclude that production of conventional oil in the United States would peak in the early 1970's and enter into irreversible decline thereafter. He also postulated that production of conventional oil worldwide would peak some time in the early part of the first decade of the 21st century and enter into irreversible decline thereafter. He published his conclusions in a prominent peer-reviewed journal and managed to make his Shell Oil bosses very unhappy. The trouble was, he was right.

Hubbert's assumptions were validated by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere in an article titled “The End of Cheap Oil,” published in Scientific American in 1998.  This article provoked a flurry of both interest and controversy and was a catalyst in the formation of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, or ASPO in short. The Oil Drum website was also born, as well as organizations like the Post-Carbon Institute. A child lately born among this brood was the Energy Watch Group which began as a collection of geologists and other scientists sponsored by the German government under the leadership of Hans-Josef Fell of the German Parliament. (The Energy Watch Group correctly stated that the peak of global conventional crude oil production (excluding shale and tar sands) had already occurred by 2008.) All of these groups were characterized by strong technical leadership consisting of scientists with strong technical backgrounds who were well-qualified to discuss the field they were addressing, namely, the likelihood of near-term declines in global conventional oil production.

The discussion of the likelihood of near-term decline in the availability of cheap oil naturally led to the discussion of the likely impact and effects of such a decline on First World economies. This led to the generation of a number of scenarios. At first, those producing the scenarios were strongly technical types very similar to the people who were studying the possibility of production rate declines. For instance, the United States government commissioned a group of respected scientists led by Robert Hirsch to study the likely impacts on American society of permanent near-term declines in availability of oil. The results of that study were published in 2005 in a document now known as the Hirsch report.

The Hirsch report predicted major disruptions to industrial society unless preparations were made sufficiently far in advance (as in, 20 years) of the peaking and decline of conventional oil production. Hirsch, et al, did not exactly talk about zombies, but the impacts described in the report were dramatic enough to inspire a number of other people (including several people without technical academic degrees) to start mapping out possible scenarios. These scenarios tended to fall into two general categories: a “fast crash” case and a “more nuanced” case.

In the “fast crash” camp were such people as the creators of the World Without Oil website, a supposed reality “game” in which people could explore the impact of a sudden drop in oil availability. (I discovered the site in 2007, and noticed that most of its scenarios tended to be variations on a violent “zombie apocalypse” theme. But I'm getting ahead of myself.) There was also Matt Savinar, a blogger who formerly devoted himself to covering the impacts of peak oil on industrial societies. Matt earned a degree in law (and thereafter started calling himself the “Juris Doctor of Doom”) while trying to build a business selling what I would call “doom preparation kits” of emergency rations and other “collapse preparation” supplies. But there came a point in 2010 where he suddenly felt “led” to switch from collapse preparation and law to astrology. Among the ranks of “fast crash” writers were also people like Guy McPherson who is trying to build a career as a traveling doom counselor, Michael Ruppert who reportedly shot himself in 2011, and James Howard Kunstler, a former journalist and writer of fiction who used to regularly predict at the beginning of each year that the stock market would crash to a level no greater than 4000 points in that year.  Over the last few years, Mr. Kunstler has expanded his offerings to include extremely racist, misogynist and right-wing statements of the sort that make it clear that he is eager to throw those whom he deems powerless under the bus if he thinks he can get away with it. 

The “more nuanced” camp also had a number of members, who generally tended to be much less colorful and much more cautious in their assessment of the future, and who also tended to be much more prudent in giving advice and recommendations for dealing with a future of economic contraction. They also tended to be strong and deep systems thinkers. Three names immediately come to mind: first, Richard Heinberg, a fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute, and David Holmgren, who together with Bill Mollison founded the discipline of permaculture (a discipline which is now being seriously taught in government-sponsored Australian universities, by the way). In looking at a future of scarcity, such people as these tended to recognize the need to play a long game.

Over the last several months, the differences in outlook between the two camps has intrigued me, not least because the way a person sees a situation tells a lot about what's inside that person. And the differences in outlook between the two camps has been interesting from a psychological, sociological and spiritual viewpoint. The key assumptions of the “fast-crashers” was that a sudden or serious shortfall in availability of the resources and consumer goods needed for a middle-class American lifestyle would result in the eruption of instant anarchy, with violent mobs (all assumed to be poor and usually dark-skinned) raping, pillaging, looting and burning everything in sight. Therefore, the proper way to prepare for such a shortfall was to buy a doomstead in Montana or some other isolated place, and to stock it with an abundant supply of guns, ammo, baked beans and gold pieces, and to outfit one's doomstead with as many trappings and gizmos as necessary to preserve “liberty!” (and a middle-class lifestyle) into the post-apocalyptic age.  (Another key to preparation was to watch the stock market obsessively every day, watching for the first sign of collapse in order to know when and how to shift one's "investments" in order to preserve maximum value.)  In such a fast-crash world, the kind of morality that regarded other lives as precious enough to share your material goods with them (especially the lives of people different from you) was to be regarded as excess baggage to be discarded as soon as possible, and the “survivors” of such a crash were exhorted to adopt a moral compass that looked a lot like the compass of selfishness that guided Ayn Rand throughout her miserable life.

One problem with such a viewpoint is that it was and continues to be contradicted by evidence from every available corner of the planet. For instance, there are hundreds of millions – even billions – of people who live in societies with per capita incomes much lower than the per capita income of the United States, and these people live quite peaceably as long as they have their basic needs met. They are not zombies. (What warfare arises among these people is usually provoked by resource-hungry Anglo-American or European powers, and not by the indigenous people themselves.) And there are a lot of poor people in the U.S. who are the salt of the earth. Who says that instant anarchy has to erupt if people don't have all the stuff that most mainstream Americans are taught to crave? Such a belief is a fallacy typical of spoiled mainstream Americans who tend to believe that if they can't have a lifestyle of “special” privilege and comfort, the end of the world must be at hand. Another problem is that people with this point of view are trying to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle by a zombie apocalypse version of hoarding, like Gollum or Smaug the dragon in Tolkien story The Hobbit. So we have people who outfit their doomsteads with several kW of solar panels and massive battery storage systems so they can enjoy all the comforts of home in case the grid goes down. (Good luck trying to get them to share any of their stash.) Why not learn to live without some of those comforts, since after all, the batteries and panels will eventually wear out?

To me, it seems that the fast-crash scenario has become something of a blank slate on which certain personalities project fantasies whose characteristics have been covered repeatedly in the psychology-related posts of the last year and a half on this blog. So it is probably not surprising that over the last few years, such zombie apocalypse/prepper thinking has been picked up by the talking heads at Fox News and similar media outlets, who have gotten into the business of hawking gold and emergency rations as part of their campaign to instill mass hysteria into a captive cult audience of aging white Baby Boomers. (That's how I knew I tasted something funny...) Another example of this is the post-apocalyptic novels of James Howard Kunstler, in which he places the survivors into ranks and social classes that suit the fantasies of Anglo-American narcissistic males. (I bought his first "collapse" novel, but I have to admit that I didn't even get halfway through it, as the prose in his novel seemed to be no better than that of the Left Behind novels.  (Although I am a Christian, I couldn't stand those books - it's a sin to make cheap art out of Scripture.)  Here are a few trenchant lines regarding Kunstler's book from a Los Angeles Times reviewer.  If you want to read some well-written post-apocalyptic fiction, I would recommend Stephen King's The Stand, although King does not deal with resource depletion and climate change.)

The more nuanced camp has thus had increasing appeal to me over the years. I now consider myself to be a member of that camp. I believe the official reports of the Energy Watch Group and of Robert Hirsch's task force. I also believe the authors of the Limits to Growth reports. I therefore believe that our global industrial society (and American society in particular) is already encountering some non-negotiable changes. But I also believe that this fact does not give us a pass to throw away our moral compass. Rather, that moral compass (and a firm grip on reality) should guide us in assessing our situation. We should be asking whether we face a problem to be gotten over, or a predicament to be lived with graciously. (I believe the evidence points to the latter.)

If then we face a predicament, how shall we address it? What are the strategic goals we should have? One reason I like people like Richard Heinberg is that he seems to be looking for solutions which benefit as many people as possible (rather than clamoring hysterically about a coming zombie apocalypse)! If helping as many people as possible is to be our goal, that goal will guide the technical adaptations we pursue. The search for technical adaptations will have to take place on three scales: the individual, the local, and the societal. And these adaptations will not be effective without first adapting psychologically, namely, in deciding whether we are willing to accept a humbler lifestyle. Dysfunctional psychology will interfere with the wise choosing of appropriate technical adaptations! Can “we” get over our modern Western, American dysfunctional psychology in an age of limits? Or will we continue to hawk the same “solutions” that got us into our present mess: guns, “liberty!!!”, selfishness, the “free market,” the exaltation of the “agentic” over the “communal” (as blogger CZBZ puts it)? The coming days will mark the end of Anglo-American “fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love,” and "we" will have to heal our diseased mindset, lest we continue to try the wrong solutions to the wrong problems. Those who keep pushing wrong approaches may end up trying to feed themselves with long spoons in Hell.  And let me tell you something.  The rest of the world will not simply roll over and die so that you can have a temporary extension of your fantasies of unlimited power.  You will have to adapt to life in a multipolar world and a multicultural society.

As far as technical adaptations, that has been my focus for the last few years, and it is the reason why I have gone back to school. I believe that the formulation of technical adaptations to resource scarcity and lower energy availability will require the presence of people with a strong background in math and the sciences. That will be the background of people who are interested in playing “the long game,” and that is the background which I have been acquiring. Those with such a background will not only be able to formulate technical adaptations, but will also be able to test and fine-tune those adaptations so that they work optimally. Along those lines, I intend, God willing, to write a post this summer about a project that I've been working on since last year. Stay tuned...

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