Arguments from Ignorance

For some time now I’ve been wondering how to bring up a certain habit of thought that, as I see it, forms one of the taproots feeding the contemporary crisis of industrial civilization. That it had to be discussed here on The Archdruid Report I never doubted, but in the midst of a cascade of dramatic current events, that discussion can seem very nearly beside the point. When the system of hallucinatory finance that propped up the illusion of American prosperity for a quarter century may be going to pieces around us, panic selling in commodity markets by speculators hit with margin calls is sending fossil fuel prices to lows just as unsustainable as their recent highs, and the wheels are coming off America’s global empire, I find myself wondering, is it really a good time to go wandering off in pursuit of intangibles?

Then perspective returns, and I remember that it’s precisely the intangibles, the states of mind and attitudes toward the world that form a culture’s collective discourse, that define what it can and cannot accomplish as the age of oil comes to an end. As I’ve commented before, it’s not technical issues that make our present predicament so difficult; it’s the failure of collective will that keeps even the most grudging acknowledgment of our predicament, and even the most modest response to it, completely off the radar screens of mainstream politics in every nation in the industrial world. Until the “mind-forg’d manacles” of dysfunctional thinking are unlocked and tossed aside, constructive plans for the world after peak oil on anything past an individual level are wasted effort, since they will not be implemented by societies that cannot grasp the need for them.

I had a cogent reminder of this over the past week, when three efforts of mine to spark collective discussion about these issues – my book The Long Descent, a reading and booksigning at a local bookstore here in southern Oregon, and the most recent post here – fielded three responses that used very different arguments to make a common claim. A reader of my book emailed me to tell me he thought I was refusing to give proper weight to the possibility that new technology would save our civilization from the impact of peak oil; a serious young man who attended the reading came up afterwards to ask me what I thought about the possibility that the current crisis would drive humanity to achieve a new stage of spiritual evolution, after which we will easily replace fossil fuels with currently unimaginable resources; a new reader of this blog sent in a comment insisting that peak oil was an illusion manufactured by sinister elites who were suppressing inventions that would allow everyone to have all the energy they wanted.

Mind you, I’d encountered every one of these assertions before. Ever since this blog first started suggesting that the end of the age of cheap abundant energy was the natural and inevitable result of a human ecology hopelessly out of step with the realities of life on a finite planet, I’ve fielded a great many emails and comments insisting, basically, that it just ain’t so – that one way or another, for one reason or another, humanity could have its abundant energy resources and burn them too, and can reasonably expect more of the same forever. The three responses I’ve just cited by no means exhaust the full spectrum of arguments advanced to back this curious claim, but they’re good representative samples of the type.

Now it’s possible to dispute each of these claims on their own terms, and I’ve done that more than once on this blog and elsewhere, but there’s a very real extent to which this is a waste of breath. Each of them is what the old logicians used to call argumentia ad ignorantem, arguments from ignorance. They insist on the presence of a factor that isn't actually present for examination and can’t be proved or disproved – a technological advance that hasn’t happened yet, an imminent spiritual transformation that has to be taken on blind faith, or a conspiracy so secret and pervasive that it can manipulate everything we think we know about the world – to insist that we don’t actually have to do anything about peak oil.

Such arguments prove nothing, of course; they're the precise equivalent of using the phrase "then a miracle happens" to get from one step of a cookbook recipe or a mathematical equation to the next. Their only virtue is that they’re impossible to disprove. I’ve come to think that this last detail is why they’re so popular. It’s a very charming social habit, dating back to the 18th century Enlightenment, to profess the belief that people come to decisions about the world by sitting down with the relevant facts, assessing them calmly, and then making a decision on that basis. I think most of us are aware, though, that few decisions are actually made this way; much more often, people start from the conclusion that appeals to their emotions and intuition, and then go looking for logical reasons to support the belief they’ve already chosen.

Most of the time, this is actually a good thing. Left to itself, the reasoning mind tends to run to extremes; it’s because most human decisions obey the nonrational promptings of emotional patterns laid down in childhood that our lives have any continuity at all. This same process, averaged out over the millions who inhabit a nation, provides a sense of stability and identity essential to our collective life. Still, the emotions’ habit of projecting the past onto the blank screen of the future can become a ghastly liability when the future no longer resembles the past in some crucial sense.

That’s the situation we’re facing now. Between 1980 and 2005, political gimmickry and the reckless overproduction of the North Slope and North Sea oil fields crashed the price of oil to right around US$10 a barrel – corrected for inflation, the cheapest price in history. During that quarter century of unsustainable excess, energy was so cheap that the cost no longer mattered; it seemed to make perfect sense to live in rural Oregon and commute daily by jet to San Francisco or Seattle, or to arbitrage wage costs by manufacturing consumer goods for the American market in Third World sweatshops and shipping them halfway around the world to their customers, or to build internet server farms, thousands of them, each one drawing as much electricity from the grid as a medium-sized town.

That world of unlimited free energy is the world in which nearly all of us in the industrial world lived until very recently, and it’s the only world people who are under the age of 35 or so can remember at all. Thus it’s not surprising that when people are faced with the claim that the future will be very, very different, they tend to reject the notion out of hand, and if the only reasons they can find to justify that rejection are arguments from ignorance like the ones I cited above, then arguments from ignorance are what they’ll cite.

The problem is that at this point we don’t have time to wait for hypothetical solutions to show up and save us. The Hirsch Report pointed out in 2005 that, to avoid severe economic disruption, any effective response to peak oil had to get started at least twenty years before the beginning of petroleum production declines. Any less than that, and the result is damage to the economy; the shorter the lead time, the worse the damage, and waiting until production declines actually begin is a recipe for crippling economic impacts that could make it impossible to respond to the crisis effectively at all.

This is dire news, because we no longer have the twenty years Hirsch specified; we most likely have only two years left. By most calculations, in fact, conventional petroleum production actually peaked the same year the Hirsch Report was published; apparent increases since then have happened because biofuels, tar sand extractives, and other alternative fuels that require high energy inputs have been lumped together with conventional oil; and the best estimates suggest that even with the alternatives factored in, production will face serious declines beginning around 2010. That gives us desperately little time to respond, and no time to spare for arguments that insist some unknown phenomenon will pop out of the woodwork just in time.

There are times late at night when I find myself wondering if similar reasonings could have been heard in the Yucatan lowlands as the Terminal Classic period of Mayan history arrived. and the paired jaws of declining soil fertility and catastrophic drought clamped around the throat of Lowland Maya civilization. There were plenty of potential responses as the corn harvests began to fail, centering on a transition from corn culture to less valued foods such as ramon nuts, but ideological factors made such a transition difficult for the ahauob, “divine lords” of the Maya city-states, to contemplate; abundant corn harvests filled the same role in their culture as abundant fossil fuel supplies have in ours.

Thus, instead of facing the crisis, the ahauob responded by hoping that something would provide them with a way out of it. Some of them, anticipating America’s recent neoconservative movement, went to war with other city-states to seize their corn supplies, while others offered up human sacrifices and built ever more grandiose temples in the hopes that the gods would take the crisis away. None of this helped, and much of it probably made the situation worse; one way or another, the result was a “rolling collapse” that, over a century and a half, turned the thriving Maya cities of the lowlands to crumbling, overgrown ruins inhabited by a scattering of survivors.

The idea that the cities of contemporary North America could meet the same fate is quite literally unthinkable to most people today, but then the Maya, the Romans, and the people of other collapsed civilizations all probably found their historical destiny just as unthinkable before it happened. There may be little reason to hope that anything like a majority can be helped to think the unthinkable in time to make a difference, but the effort seems worth making, and challenging the sort of arguments from ignorance I’ve described above might be a good first step.