Is History on Anyone's Side?

I’d meant this week’s Archdruid Report to go sailing straight ahead along the course charted out two weeks ago, with a discussion of the role that population contraction is likely to play as the industrial age winds down into the deindustrial future. Still, just as the guys on the Argo got used to Jason or Hercules or somebody pointing off to starboard and saying, “Hey, that island looks worth checking out,” those of my readers who have followed this particular voyage in search of the future have probably learned to expect sudden swerves into unexpected territory.

This particular swerve was inspired in part by the last paragraph of a blogpost by Sharon Astyk, whose writings on the crisis of the industrial world are among the best out there. The post, “Depletion, racism, and paving the road to hell,” focuses on a side of peak oil very few people like to talk about – the pervasive themes of race and class that run through so many of its current narratives, offering starring roles in dramas of survival only to middle-class whites, while relegating the poor and nonwhite to walk-on roles as victims in mass graves or members of the ubiquitous rampaging mobs of survivalist fantasy. While I have my disagreements with some of her stances, it’s a good post, and it points out issues that have to be addressed if the ideas discussed in this forum are ever to be more than the mental games of a privileged class with no better use for its time.

But then there’s the last paragraph, and the passage that brought me to a dead stop: “[T]he one bright spot in this future is that peak oil and climate change represent the greatest hope for reallocation of wealth and justice in the world.”

That’s an astonishing statement, and the fact that similar statements can be heard all over the peak oil community is one of the more astonishing things about it.

After all, Astyk is not exactly the only person who thinks that the crisis of industrial society is “the greatest hope” for social change. She may not be pleased to hear that the same hope guides Nick Griffin, current head of the British National Party. The BNP, for those who don’t keep tabs on the far end of British politics, is an extremist party of the far right that advocates, among other things, “repatriating” nonwhite people from Britain to their (or their great-great-great-grandparents’) country of origin. It would be hard to find a wider political gap in today’s world than the one between Griffin and Astyk, and yet both think that peak oil is on their side.

They’re not alone in that belief, either. Find a political or social movement far from the mainstream these days and odds are you’ll find it proclaiming that peak oil will put the future they desire into their waiting hands. Marxists waiting for proletarian revolution, Klansmen waiting for the South to rise again, neoprimitivists waiting for civilization to go away so they can lead the hunting and gathering lifestyle of their dreams, all pin their hopes for the future on peak oil. If there are still Distributivists out there – I hope there are; Distributivism always seemed more humane to me than a good many of the notions that elbowed it aside in the political free-for-all of the 1930s – I would not be surprised in the least to hear them claim that peak oil will inevitably bring Chesterton’s dream to pass. Not since Doctor Fox’s Genuine Arkansas Snake Oil stopped being sold on the carnival circuit, I suspect, has one remedy been applied to so many different diagnoses.

This invites satire, but there are patterns at work that deserve close and serious attention instead. Most of the grand mythic narratives that compete for attention in today’s collective imagination claim that history has a direction and a goal. Some, like the mythology of progress I’ve tried to anatomize before, take some set of current trends and project them out indefinitely in the direction of Utopia. Others take some set of current trends, define their necessary endpoint as hell on earth, and use that identification to rally opposition against them. Yet there’s at least one more class of narrative, one that sees the goal of history as something hidden in the undergrowth of events, known only to the few just now, but destined for sudden revelation.

Most of the narratives of this third class derive in one way or another from a single source – the unique historical experience of the Jewish people. Like the other minor kingdoms of the ancient Near East, the Jews saw themselves as sharers in a covenant with a tribal god, who gave them his protection in exchange for their faith and offerings. Like their neighbors, they struggled to square that faith with the brutal realities of the international politics of their time. After a brief heyday under David and Solomon, the history of ancient Israel was a story of decline ending in the catastrophe of deportation to Babylon.

The conquest of Babylon less than a century later by the Persian Empire, though, sent the story spinning in a new direction. Under Persian rule the Jews were permitted to return home, restore a national community and rebuild their temple. This astonishing redemption at a time when all reasonable hope had faded had a profound impact on Jewish religion and culture, and became the template against which Jewish history before and afte found a measure. To Jewish theologians then and ever since, the restoration of the Temple showed that the god of Israel had not failed his people even when all the facts seemed to point the other way. The tenacious faith this conviction bred played a crucial role in allowing the Jews to survive the much greater catastrophes that lay in wait as history unfolded.

Yet the same faith found other believers as core ideas of Judaism got taken up and reworked by the younger religions of Christianity and Islam, and spread in these new forms across the face of the planet. The same vision of a divine plan within contemporary adversities that would be made plain in some future act of redemption became common currency for human hopes across the world. When medieval Welsh rebels invoked the dream of King Arthur come back from Avalon to drive the English invader back into the sea, or 17th century Chinese secret societies claimed that the Mandate of Heaven still rested with the hidden heirs of the Ming dynasty, those claims echoed with the same hope of national redemption that kept their Jewish contemporaries going through their own bitter troubles.

Later still, as religion gave way to less overtly mythic ideologies in the collective imagination of much of humankind, the same story spun out into a galaxy of versions backing any political or social movement you care to name. Very few narratives can undergo that sort of diffusion without being debased into a cliché, or even a mental automatism, and the idea that history must be on the side of whatever ideology one happens to support has become so common these days that it approximates the latter.

A more specific problem, though, is that if peak oil is on anyone’s side, it’s not likely to be that of the liberal causes for which Astyk hopes to recruit it. Most of the great achievements of the liberal tradition have taken place in times of economic expansion – consider the abolition of the slave trade in the prosperous early Victorian era, for example, or the civil rights movement in America in the boomtime 1950s. Times of economic contraction, by contrast, tend to foster reactionary politics – consider the spread of totalitarian regimes across Europe in the decade that followed the stock market crash of 1929. Those tendencies are no more absolute than anything else in history, but they do exist.

The causes driving this pattern are doubtless complex, but one core factor can be teased out of Astyk’s own analysis. When the economic pie is growing larger, nobody has to lose part of their share in order for those unfairly deprived to get more. When the pie is static, though, a gain for anyone is a loss for somebody else, and when the pie is actually shrinking, the division of slices can all too easily degenerate into a mad scramble for scraps and crumbs. Abstract concepts of equity become hard to keep in sight when it’s your own children who risk going hungry. For many middle class people who had been secure from want, the Great Depression brought this experience, and reactionary regimes that promised them security prospered accordingly.

I don’t think it’s necessary to be a “doomer,” whatever exactly that label means, to think that as the industrial world begins sliding down the far side of Hubbert’s peak, the pie of today’s industrial economy will shrink a great deal, and a lot of people who are comfortable today will find themselves in the same situation their grandparents faced in the years after 1929. I also don’t think it’s necessary to be a “doomer” to notice that while most parties on the left are avoiding the implications of peak oil the way a ten-year-old boy tries to wriggle away from an elderly aunt’s kiss, the BNP and other parties of the far right are already hard at work positioning themselves to take advantage of post-peak realities.

Thus if Astyk means simply that liberals might be able to respond to the social impacts of peak oil and climate change, and in the process regain some of the ground they’ve lost in recent decades, she may be right. They’ll have to work overtime, both to counter the advantages held by reactionaries and to make up for time already lost, but the thing has been done successfully before – the New Deal comes to mind. On the other hand, if she’s claiming that the wrenching social problems set in motion by these two factors will necessarily favor her agenda, she’s likely misleading herself, and she may be doing the causes she supports a significant disservice.

More generally, it may be worth suggesting that those who claim that peak oil is a door to their favorite Utopia are engaged in the same unproductive act. As the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end, things will change; more likely than not they will change drastically, and for most people, many of those changes will be for the worse. I’ve argued here and elsewhere that the scope of those changes can best be understood by comparing them to the decline and fall of civilizations in the past. One lesson that can be learned from the past, though, is that waiting for catastrophe to accomplish your goals for you is one of history’s classic losing bets.

If anything but a slow decline into confusion and forgetfulness is to take form within the shell of today’s industrial civilization, it will have to be built brick by brick and board by board, and its resemblance to Utopia will be tempered by the sharp realities of resource limits and a biosphere in disarray. History chooses her own course, and those who insist that history is necessarily on their side are likely to find out the hard way that if she helps anyone at all – which she does not always do – it is most often those who help themselves.