Economic Superstitions

It has been an interesting week for connoisseurs of decline and fall. As I’m sure all my readers are aware by now, a small volcano in Iceland managed to chuck a sizable monkey wrench into the gears of business as usual across Europe by filling the upper atmosphere with a massive plume of what amounts to finely ground glass: just the thing you want to put into the intake of your favorite jet engine.

Most volcanic eruptions don’t do this, but Eyjafjallajokull – say that three times very fast – happens to be under a glacier. (It is located in a country called Iceland, after all.) Or, rather, it used to be under a glacier; bring molten lava into contact with a glacier and you don’t have a glacier for long. What you have instead is what volcanologists call a phreatic eruption and the rest of us call a steam explosion. Rinse (with lava) and repeat, and you get two things. The first is a stratosphere full of fine sandpaper grit; the second is most of a continent flailing helplessly as one of its transportation networks shuts down for several days.

The human reaction was instructive. One of my regular readers commented that his wife, who works in the travel industry, has been deluged by calls from irate travelers who seem convinced that she can make the ash go away with a couple of phone calls. An EU commissioner was caught in public saying that long distance tourism was an inalienable human right, while airlines demanded that governments compensate them for the closure of the skies; at least they had the grace not to demand the money from Iceland. Meanwhile Great Britain, which gets most of its fruit and much of its vegetables from the Third World by air, was facing the prospect of bare shelves in the grocery stores for the first time since the aftermath of the Second World War.

It’s been a while since we’ve had so clear a reminder that the intricate and fragile clockwork of industrial society depends so completely on Nature’s whims, but as usual, most people managed not to get the memo. Me, I didn’t give it much thought, since I was reading a different and more familiar memo, the one brought every spring by lengthening days and the waning risk of frost. I was out in the garden planting bush beans, dwarf peas, and Danvers carrots, since the weather was warm and the Moon was in a fertile sign.

Yes, I plant by the signs. I originally learned that habit out in the Pacific Northwest, where very few people do it, and it’s ironic that I ended up moving to the Appalachians, where most gardeners keep an eye on the almanac when choosing planting dates. Do I think it works? A lot depends on what’s meant by that rather facile question. It certainly doesn’t do any harm; my gardens get good results at least as reliably as those of my neighbors, and it’s no particular inconvenience to check the signs when deciding when to plant the next round of seeds. I don’t know for a fact that it helps, but then the same thing could be said for many other things I do in the garden. (I’m more interesting in growing vegetables than in proving a point, so I don’t deprive part of my garden of compost, say, to find out whether putting my kitchen wastes in the compost bin rather than a landfill makes as much difference as it seems.) Besides, planting by the signs has entertainment value: I’ve come to enjoy the theatrics the habit attracts from rationalists who get incensed by anything they consider superstitious.

Of course they’re quite correct that planting by the signs is a superstition, but that word has a subtler meaning than most people remember these days. A superstition is literally something “standing over” (in Latin, super stitio) from a previous age; more precisely, it’s an observance that has become detached from its meaning over time. A great many of today’s superstitions thus descend from the religious observances of archaic faiths. When my wife’s Welsh grandmother set a dish of milk outside the back door for luck, for example, she likely had no idea that her pagan ancestors did the same thing as an offering to the local tutelary spirits.

Yet there’s often a remarkable substrate of ecological common sense interwoven with such rites. If your livelihood depends on the fields around your hut, for example, and rodents are among the major threats you face, a ritual that will attract cats and other small predators to the vicinity of your back door night after night is not exactly foolish. The Japanese country folk who consider foxes the messengers of Inari the rice god, and put out offerings of fried tofu to attract them, are mixing agricultural ecology with folk religion in exactly the same way.

There’s a lot of this sort of thing in the world of superstition. I have long since lost the reference, but many years ago I read an ecological study of human hunting practices, which pointed out that nearly all cultures that get much of their food from the hunt use divination to decide where to hunt on any given day. The authors pointed out that according to game theory, the best strategy in any competition has to include a random element in order to keep the other side guessing. Most prey animals are quite clever enough to figure out a nonrandom pattern of hunting – there’s a reason why deer across America head into suburbs and towns, where hunting isn’t allowed, as soon as hunting season opens each year – so inserting a random factor into hunting strategy will pay off in increased kills over time. As far as we know, humans are the only animals that make decisions with the aid of horoscopes, tarot cards, yarrow stalks and the like, and it’s intriguing to think that this habit may have had a significant role in our evolutionary success.

Is this all there is to the practice of superstition? It’s a good question, and one that’s effectively impossible to answer. For all I know, all those ancient civilizations that built vast piles of stone to the honor of their gods may have been right to say that Marduk, Osiris, Kukulcan et al. were well pleased by having big temples erected in their honor, and reciprocated by granting peace and prosperity to their worshippers. It may just be a coincidence that channeling the boisterous energy of young men into some channel more constructive than civil war is a significant social problem in most civilizations, and giving them big blocks of stone to haul around in teams, in hot competition with other teams, seems to do the trick; it may also be a coincidence that convincing the very rich to spend their wealth employing huge numbers of laborers on vanity buildings provides a steady boost to even the simplest urban economy. Maybe this is how Kukulcan shows that he’s well pleased.

Still, there’s a wild card in the deck, because it’s possible for even the most useful superstition to become a major source of problems when conditions change. When the Mayan civilization overshot the carrying capacity of its fragile environment, the Mayan elite responded to the rising spiral of crisis by building more and bigger temples. That had worked in the past, but it failed to work this time, because the situation was different; the problem had stopped being one of managing social stresses within Mayan society, and turned into one of managing the collapsing relationship between Mayan society and the natural systems that supported it. This turned what had been an adaptive strategy into a disastrously maladaptive one, as resources and labor that might have been put to use in the struggle to maintain a failing agricultural system went instead to a final spasm of massive construction projects. This time, Kukulcan was not pleased, and Mayan civilization came apart in a rolling collapse that turned a proud civilization into crumbling ruins.

Rationalists might suggest that this is what happens to a civilization that tries to manage its economic affairs by means of superstitions. That may be so, but the habit in question didn’t die out with the classic Mayan civilization; it’s alive and well today, with a slight difference. Ancient cultures built huge pyramids of stone; we build even vaster pyramids of money.

In Cardano’s Cosmos, a thoughtful study of the life and times of the great Renaissance astrologer Girolamo Cardano, historian Anthony Grafton tried to explain the role of astrologers as advisers to Renaissance governments by comparing them to economists in today’s world. Plausible as this comparison may seem at first glance, I have to say that it is deeply unfair to astrologers. Whether or not astrology works as advertised – a question I don’t propose to address here – no competent astrologer claims that the Sun will rise in the west or that Jupiter will swing between the Earth and the Moon. By contrast, it’s not hard to find economists blithely insisting, as many did during the recent housing bubble, that a speculative frenzy can keep on inflating forever, or claiming, as many are doing right now, that a nation can make itself prosperous by running up mountains of debt.

Economics is our modern superstition – well, one of them, at any rate, and one of the most popular among the political class of today’s industrial societies. Like any other superstition, it has a core of pragmatic wisdom to it, but that core has been overlaid with a great deal of somewhat questionable logic. My wife’s Welsh ancestors believed that the bowl of milk on the back stoop pleased the fairies, and that’s why the rats stayed away from the kitchen garden; the economists of the twentieth century believed that expanding the money supply pleased – well, the prosperity fairies, or something not too dissimilar – and that’s why depressions stayed away from the United States.

In both cases it’s arguable that something very different was going on. The gargantuan economic boom that made America the world’s largest economy had plenty of causes; the accident of political geography that kept its industrial hinterlands from becoming war zones, while most other industrial nations got the stuffing pounded out of them, had more than a little to do with the matter; but the crucial point, one too often neglected in studies of twentieth century history, was the simple fact that the United States at midcentury produced more petroleum than all the other countries on Earth put together. The oceans of black gold on which the US floated to victory in two world wars defined the economic reality of an epoch. As a result, most of what passed for economic policy in the last sixty years or so amounted to attempts to figure out how to make use of unparalleled abundance.

That’s still what today’s economists are trying to do, using pretty much the same habits they adopted during the zenith of the age of oil. The problem is that this is no longer what economists need to be doing. With the coming of peak oil and the first slow slippages in worldwide conventional petroleum production, the challenge facing today’s industrial societies is managing the end of abundance. The age of cheap abundant energy now ending was a dramatic anomaly in historical terms, though not quite unprecedented; every so often, but rarely, it happens that a human society finds itself free from natural limits to prosperity and expansion – for a time. That time always ends, and the society has to relearn the lessons of more normal and less genial times. This is what we need to do now.

This is exactly what today’s economics is unprepared to do, however. Like the Mayan elite at the beginning of what archeologists call the Terminal Classic period, our political classes are trying to meet unfamiliar problems with overfamiliar solutions. The results have not been good. Repeated attempts to overcome economic stagnation by expanding access to credit have produced a series of destructive speculative bubbles and crashes, and efforts to maintain an inflated standard of living in the face of a slowly contracting real economy have heaped up gargantuan debts. These measures haven’t worked; the one significant attempt to do something different, the neoconservative project to invade Iraq and put its oil reserves in American hands, was even less successful; and at this point fingerpointing and frantic pedaling in place seems to have replaced any more constructive response to a situation that is becoming more dangerous by the day.

Are there constructive things that could be done? Of course, but every one of them flies in the face of the currently accepted economic superstitions, and most of them also involve requiring the people who benefit disproportionately from the current state of things to give up some of their perquisites – not exactly a winning bet at a time when political power has become so diffuse in most industrial nations that some pressure group or other can be counted on to veto any attempt at systemic change. I’ve already suggested several possible steps in this blog – replacing income and sales taxes with resource and interest taxes; making corporations subject to nonfinancial penalties for criminal acts; reinventing urban and suburban agriculture; tilting tax policy to encourage single-income families; rebuilding the household economy, and more – but I’ve done so in the full awareness that none of these things are going to be discussed in the corridors of government any time soon. Those that will happen at all, will happen because they can be set in motion by individuals, families, and local communities; those that can’t be pursued on that level – well, let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.

The act of faith that leads policy makers today to think that policies that failed last year will succeed next year is only part of the problem, of course. The superstitions that lead so many intelligent people to think that our problems can be solved by pursuing a flotilla of new and expensive technological projects are another part. There are technologies that can help us right now, granted, but they’re on the other end of the spectrum from the fusion reactors and solar satellites and plans to turn all of Nevada into one big algae farm that get so much attention today. Local, resilient, sustainable, and cheap: those should be our keywords just now; there are plenty of technological solutions that answer to that description, but again, our superstitions stand in the way.

The widespread reaction to the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, for that matter, points up what may just be the most deeply rooted of our superstitions, the belief that Nature can be ignored with impunity. It’s only fair to point out that for most people in the industrial world, for most of a century now, this has been true more often than not; the same exuberant abundance that produced ski slopes in Dubai and fresh strawberries in British supermarkets in January made it reasonable, for a while, to act as though whatever Nature tossed our way could be brushed aside. In the emerging postabundance age, though, this may be the most dangerous superstition of all. The tide of cheap abundant energy that has defined our attitudes as much as our technologies is ebbing now, and we are rapidly losing the margin of error that made our former arrogance possible.

As that change unfolds, it might be worth suggesting that it’s time to discard our current superstitions concerning economics, energy, and nature, and replace them with some more functional approach to these things. A superstition, once again, is an observance that has become detached from its meaning, and one of the more drastic ways this detachment can take place is a change in the circumstances that make that meaning relevant. This has arguably happened to our economic convictions, and to a great many more of the commonplaces of modern thought; and it’s simply our bad luck, so to speak, that the consequences of pursuing those superstitions in the emerging world of scarcity and contraction are likely to be considerably more destructive than those of planting by the signs or leaving a dish of milk on the back step.