A Fashion for Austerity

The tempest in a media teapot over the apocalyptic predictions of California radio evangelist Harold Camping, it seems to me, provides a useful glimpse into the state of the collective imagination here in America. Camping, for those of my readers who somehow managed to miss the flurry of news stories, announced some months ago that the Rapture – the sudden miraculous teleportation of every devout Christian from earth to Heaven, which plays a central role in one account of the end times that’s popular just now in American Protestant circles – was going to happen at 6 pm last Saturday.

Now it so happens that I spent a large part of the last year or so researching and writing a history of apocalyptic prophecies, so the trajectory traced by Camping and his followers through the modern zeitgeist came as no surprise. What seems worth noting, though, is the amount of attention given to this latest prediction. At any given time, it’s a safe bet that somebody is proclaiming the end of the world within the next year or so, but it’s very rare that such prophecies make the news. Admittedly, your run of the mill doomsday prophet doesn’t splash his prophecy on billboards across the United States, and Camping did that; one even found its way to the quiet Appalachian town where I live, though it attracted little more than laughter. Cumberland’s well stocked with churches, and they seem to be well attended, but the antics of radio evangelists are apparently not much to local taste.

Still, I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing. When times are good, the guy with the sandwich board reading THE END IS NIGH is easy to ignore. When times are bad, on the other hand, there’s a real temptation to buy into even dubious claims that some outside force is going to rescue you. When things are bad and getting worse, furthermore, and any inquiry into why they’re bad and getting worse points straight to choices that you’ve made and are not yet willing to unmake, the hope that someone or something other than yourself will save you from the consequences of your own actions can be one of the few comfortable ways to deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance.

Since most of the people in the industrial world right now are in that situation, it’s probably safe to assume that a bumper crop of doomsday prophecies will feature prominently in the near future. The flurry of mutually contradictory claims surrounding the supposed end of the Mayan calendar in 2012 is likely to play a large role here. It’s probably a waste of breath at this point to mention that the Mayan calendar doesn’t actually end in 2012, that Classic Mayan inscriptions contain precisely one offhand reference to that date, that the reference supports precisely none of the gaudy claims currently being circulated about it, and that plenty of other Mayan inscriptions include dates that fall decades, centuries, and millennia past 2012.

For that matter, I doubt many people care that the entire 2012 business was invented out of whole cloth by New Age mystics Terence McKenna and Jose Arguelles back in the 1980s, when the field of Mayan archeology was still cluttered with a great deal of nonsense the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphics in the following decade tipped into the dumpster. For whatever reason, the collective conversation of our time has seized on 2012 as a convenient inkblot onto which fantasies of mass enlightenment and/or mass extermination can be projected at will. My guess is that as we get closer to December 21, 2012, the prophetic three-ring circus centering on that date will likely make Harold Camping green with envy.

Meanwhile, less futile responses to the crisis of industrial civilization are moving slowly inward from the fringes toward the cultural mainstream. Members of the peak oil community who track stories in the mainstream media have noted with some bemusement in recent months that the financial press has suddenly given up its habit of blithely dismissing peak oil as a nonissue. Even the Wall Street Journal, which not that long ago was a bastion of cornucopian insouciance, had a piece in yesterday’s issue talking nervously about the end of easily extracted oil reserves. Where the Wall Street Journal goes, the rest of the media generally follows; I think it’s fair to say that peak oil’s arrival as a cause célèbre in the cultural mainstream is very nearly in sight.

One of the best arguments for this last suggestion, ironically, is the recent explosion of comments in the peak oil blogosphere insisting that this can’t possibly happen. There’s an odd but understandable shift that happens in movements that start out on the outermost fringes of a culture, as the contemporary peak oil movement did. When they’re still comfortably settled in exile from the mainstream, such movements routinely churn out grand and sweeping proposals for worldwide change; it’s entirely acceptable to propose relocating the entire American population into lifeboat ecovillages, let’s say, or sinking half the world’s gross domestic product into a crash program to build solar power satellites, because nobody really expects to have to deal with the gritty details of putting their plans into effect.

Those movements that find themselves drawn inward from the fringes, though, routinely go through a sudden loss of nerve once it becomes clear that something might actually be done about whatever issue the movement is attempting to address. It’s not hard to understand why this should be so. Imagine for a moment, dear reader, that your phone rings, and the voice on the other end of the line belongs to your Congressperson. The government, he or she tells you, has belatedly realized that peak oil is the crisis you’ve always said it was; both parties are in a state of panic; a joint Congressional committee has just been formed, at the president’s urging, to figure out how to deal with it. Your Congressperson wants you to come to Washington and tell the committee what immediate, practical response the nation should make to the crisis. Could you face such a call without breaking into a cold sweat?

Now of course the chance that most of us will ever field such a phone call is pretty remote. If I were Richard Heinberg or Tom Whipple, mind you, I’d make sure I had a list of talking points ready, but as far as I know, no archdruid has ever been asked to speak to a Congressional committee, and I don’t expect to be the first. Still, the point remains the same even when it takes less dramatic form. As peak oil goes mainstream, those of us who have been studying and speaking about it for years are going to have to present meaningful, realistic plans for action. That’s a daunting prospect, and it goes a long way to explain the recent flurry of posts and comments in the peak oil blogosphere insisting that industrial society can’t possibly change its course, because extravagant consumption of energy and other resources is hardwired into our genes or our nervous systems, or enforced by the nature of human hierarchy, or what have you.

It requires only a fairly brief glance at history to show that this is quite simply nonsense. Plenty of human societies, from Old Kingdom Egypt straight through to Tokugawa-era Japan, have deliberately set aside growth-oriented policies for the sake of survival. Ancient Egypt bought itself three thousand years of cultural continuity; Japan maintained its independence in the face of the rapacious European empires of the time; neither of these societies was exactly free of political and economic elites with an interest in their own enrichment, you’ll notice, but they and other societies with the same burden have found the transition to a steady state worth pursuing. America threw aside its promising initial steps in that direction at the end of the 1970s; thirty years later, most of the easy options have already been foreclosed on, and the combined impact of the end of the age of cheap energy and the implosion of America’s overseas empire is going to make the next few years a very difficult time no matter what decisions get made. Still, there’s a great deal that can still be done even this late in the game.

Ironically, one of the changes that has most often been dismissed as completely out of reach – the suggestion that Americans can and should use a great deal less energy and resources – is one that shows the strongest signs of catching on. One of the more useful pieces of evidence for this shift is the defensive tone of blogs like this one that have taken to denouncing the idea. Nobody wastes time being publicly outraged by notions that their audiences would never think of accepting, you know. It was when the mainstream media began dismissing peak oil in heated language that I realized, and mentioned here, tht peak oil might just manage to go mainstream; the huffy tone of blogs rejecting out of hand the idea that people might actually decide to choose a radically simpler lifestyle, unburdened by most of the technological so-called conveniences that clutter up so many lives just now, is a good indicator that a movement toward drastically lower consumption is stirring in the deep places of our collective imagination.

When it comes right down to it, after all, today’s high-consumption, hyper-connected lifestyle is a fad, right up there with hula hoops and swallowing live goldfish. Thirty years ago, the thought that people would voluntarily put themselves at the beck and call of anybody who wanted to contact them, at all hours of the day and night, would have inspired a mix of horror and hilarity. Thirty years from now, those who now can’t imagine being offline for twenty-four hours at a stretch will look back on their current habits with much the same embarrassed amusement that you get from today’s fifty-something Republicans when they remember their long-haired, pot-smoking youth. It’s precisely in the waning phase of a fad that’s passed its pull date that its participants tend to get shrill and defensive toward those who have begun to drift away – or, perhaps, who never got involved at all.

All this implies, of course, that the strategy I’ve called L.E.S.S. -- Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation – could very well become fashionable in exactly the same way. If it catches on at all, it will inevitably pick up faddish dimensions; there will be those who devote their lives to various forms of conspicuous non-consumption, those who treat some particular austerity as a litmus test while neglecting broader principles, and so on. Those dubious habits existed in the Seventies appropriate-tech movement, to be sure, and for that matter the same sort of thing can be found in every social movement. Furthermore, to the extent that L.E.S.S. becomes a fad, it will have a limited shelf life – fads always do – and there will come a point when it stops being fashionable and some other trend takes its place. That, too, has happened with every other social movement you care to name.

I’m not at all sure that a fashion for austerity would be entirely a bad thing, though. Right now, unless my sense of the flow of events is completely off kilter, we’re moving into the second and probably much more serious phase of the crisis kicked off in 2008 by the implosion of the real estate bubble, which has been metastasizing ever since under the band-aid applied to it by the industrial nations’ print-and-pretend policies. In Europe, extremist parties are making hay off the political mainstream’s insistence that the only possible option is to load trillions of Euros of bad debt onto the backs of taxpayers and ordinary working people; in America, an even more vacuous political consensus is avoiding every significant issue we face; rising powers elsewhere are claiming a growing share of the world’s energy and resource base, largely at America’s expense; festering social strains and rising economic pressures here and abroad are moving toward the breaking point.

Exactly how the resulting mess will play out is a complicated question. Still, it seems like a pretty safe bet that a fashion for austerity, however faddish its surface forms might turn out to be, might be a very good thing to adopt and even to encourage. Even if it only lasts for a decade or two, that may be enough to help a lot of people weather the immediate impact of the crisis. Whatever fashions emerge in its wake, though, it’s safe to say that today’s fad for frantic consumption won’t be among them, for the simple reason that the resources that make that fad possible are running short. Whatever fads and fashions spring up in the aftermath of the approaching crisis will have to make do with a much smaller resource base.

A fashion for austerity may be temporary, in other words, but the austerity will endure. Responding to that latter will demand significant changes to each of our lives. It’s crucial here not to make the mistake (or, more precisely, one of the mistakes) that doomed the climate change movement – that is, the habit of treating the inevitable changes ahead of us as something that can be fobbed off on the rest of humanity through unequal treaties, or conjured into being by collective action that somehow never gets around to affecting one’s own lifestyle. We are all, every one of us, going to have to get by with less energy and less of the products of energy; we are all going to have to do things for ourselves that we’ve come to assume, often unthinkingly, that machines powered by cheap abundant energy will always do for us; we are all going to have to accept a great deal more in the way of discomfort and inconvenience than we do today.

Changes on the collective level, whether driven by fashion or enacted by the Congressional committee I imagined earlier in this post, aren’t going to prevent any of that. If they happen – and I think they can, although that possibility by no means guarantees that they will – their function will be to make it easier to adjust, to provide more options, more useful information, more incentives, more encouragement. It will still be up to each of us, as individuals, to make the hard changes that will have to be made – and to do so, if at all possible, before there’s no other choice, when there’s still the time and the opportunity to work through the learning curves of unfamiliar skills and be prepared to manage the crisis with some measure of grace. As Harold Camping’s followers learned the hard way this weekend, no outside force is going to rapture us away from the consequences of three centuries of mistaken faith in exponential growth, or the act of collective blindness thirty years ago that threw away our best chance at getting through this mess in good order. The world we’ve got is the world we’re going to have to live with, and it’s going to take a lot of work to make it livable.