Night Thoughts in Hagsgate

There are times, at least for me, when the fate in store for industrial society can be seen with more than the usual clarity.  I’m thinking just now of the time I looked out a train window and saw an abandoned factory, not yet twenty years old, with foot-high saplings rising incongruously from the gutter around the roof; or of another time, in a weekend flea market here in Cumberland, when I found a kid’s book on space travel I’d loved as a child, flipped through the pages, and found myself face to face with the gap between the shining future we were supposed to have by now and the mess that was actually waiting for us when we got here.

I’m pondering another of those moments now, but the trigger this time isn’t a trackside glimpse or a memento in a repurposed warehouse. It’s the current flood of news stories, opinion pieces, and public statements by pundits of various kinds, all focused on one theme—the supposed irrelevance of peak oil.

Those of my readers who have managed to miss that torrent so far may find it helpful to spare a glance at this typical example of the species, which was forwarded to me by one of this blog’s readers (tip of the archdruidical hat to Hereward).  The author, Timothy Worstall, is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, and a specialist in rare earth elements; he starts off by complaining that he doesn’t understand peak oil, goes on to demonstrate that fact in impressive detail, and finishes up with the sort of whopper that normally earns an F on a freshman paper in Geology 101. (No, Mr. Worstall, kerogen shales such as the Green River formation are not at all the same thing as oil-bearing shales such as the Bakken formation, and nobody yet has a viable way to extract oil from kerogen shales; I trust you provide better information to clients who ask your advice about rare earth elements.)

I wish I could say that this is an extreme example, but it’s not. Worstall has at least grasped the fact that peak oil has to do the rate at which oil can be produced, which is more than most critics of the concept manage, and his confusion between kerogen shales and oil-bearing shales—though it could have been cleared up by five minutes of research—is common among people who are poorly informed about petroleum geology.  Look at other efforts to dismiss peak oil and you’ll find worse.  The question I’d like to raise is why this outpouring of misinformation and denial happens to be in full flood right now.

It’s a very odd time for peak oil to be dismissed, all things considered. Back in the late 1990s, when the first peak oil researchers began to exchange data and forecasts, several leading figures in the newborn movement made very straightforward predictions about what was going to happen. They predicted that global production of crude oil would peak in the near future, and decline thereafter; they predicted that this would cause the price of oil and petroleum products to skyrocket, imposing severe costs on the global economy and triggering economic contraction; some, though this was controversial, predicted that attempts to replace petroleum with alternative energy sources would fail because of net energy and other noneconomic factors.

These assertions were rejected with quite some heat by the few people outside the scene who bothered to notice. Critics of peak oil insisted, first, that increasing demand for petroleum would make additional capital available for the hunt for new oil fields, which would of course be found, and thus allow petroleum production to grow indefinitely; second, that if the price of oil did rise sharply, that would simply make other energy sources viable, releasing a flood of energy onto the market that would drive prices back down; and third, that human ingenuity, the free market, or some other allegedly omnipotent force would certainly be able to find limitless new energy resources and prove all the pessimists wrong.

A decade and a half later, it’s instructive to see how those predictions turned out. The short form is that the peak oil researchers were correct while their critics were shoveling smoke. The production of crude oil peaked in 2005; the price of oil spiked to levels that pundits insisted it could never reach, and has moved raggedly upward since the initial spike and crash to today’s value well above $100 a barrel; the global economy proceeded to lurch into serious trouble, and remains in a state of perpetual crisis that nobody in charge seems to be able to understand or fix; and a series of boomlets in hydrogen, ethanol, algal biodiesel and other much-hyped alternative energy sources rose and crashed as it turned out that no matter what oil cost, they cost more. 

The current bubble in shale gas is to some extent an exception to that last rule, but it’s hardly the bonanza that the media likes to claim.  Partly, shale gas production is simply a side effect of the fact that natural gas liquids, which occur in some shale gas deposits, can be sold as a petroleum substitute at very good prices; partly, shale gas has morphed in recent years into what Wall Street aficionados call a pump-and-dump operation—a bit of dubious marketing in which operators boost the price of a stock, then sell it at the inflated price to suckers, who are sure the price will go up further and  are therefore left holding the bag when it goes down instead. (I trust none of my readers have put their life savings into shale gas companies.)

Still, there’s another factor to the shale gas bubble, and also to the boom in oil-bearing shale that has filled so many glowing headlines in recent years, and will fill so many gloomy headlines a few years further on. Both are being ballyhooed as game-changing breakthroughs, even though they’re nothing of the kind—hydrofracturing ("fracking") has been a common practice for forty years, and the Bakken shale was discovered long ago.  The fracking boom is simply one of the many ways in which the world is scraping low-grade fuels out of the bottom of the barrel, just as peak oil researchers have predicted it would. Their breakthrough status is entirely a product of hype. Behind that hype, I’ve come to think, and the comparable hype that surrounded the hydrogen economy, corn ethanol, and all the other failed pseudosolutions to our predicament, lies a very specific motive: the desire to find some reason, however fatuous, to insist that it’s all right to keep on wallowing in the benefits of today’s wildly unsustainable energy and resource consumption, instead of getting ready for the far less lavish world that’s going to follow in short order.

That motive shapes a dizzyingly large share of the collective conversation of our time. Consider the book review I critiqued in last week’s post. One of the bits of rhetoric the reviewer used to dismiss my suggestion that social change has to be founded in personal change was the claim that "you can’t end rape [just] by not raping anyone." Perhaps so, but as one of my readers pointed out (tip of the archdruidical hat here to Ozark Chinquapin), someone who claimed to oppose rape would normally be expected to demonstrate that commitment by, at the very least, not raping anyone; an antirape movement that claimed that rapes committed by its members didn’t matter, because it was working to end rape everywhere, would rightly be dismissed as an exercise in extreme hypocrisy. Yet you’ll hear the identical logic from people in a good deal of the environmental movement, who insist that they can’t be bothered to lighten the burden their lifestyles place on the planet because they’re going to save the Earth all at once.

Work out the practical implications of that argument, in other words, and it amounts to a justification for clinging to the comforts and privileges of the modern industrial lifestyle even at the expense of one’s supposed ideals. That’s also the implication of the denunciations of peak oil I discussed at the beginning of this post, of course, and there are plenty of other ways of cloaking that same desire. Whether you expect solar power, thorium reactors, algal biodiesel or some other exciting new energy source to save the day; whether you anticipate the imminent arrival of the Rapture, the Singularity, the Space Brothers, a world-ending cataclysm, or a great leap of consciousness to some higher plane; or whether you simply tell yourself, as so many Americans do these days, "I’m sure they’ll think of something"—if you look at that belief honestly, dear reader, doesn’t it work out to an excuse that lets you claim that it really is okay for you to keep enjoying whatever you see as your share of the goodies churned out by the industrial machine?

It’s here, in turn, that I glance down and see the void opening up beneath the foundations of that same machine—and it’s also here that I find myself remembering a harrowing detail from one of the favorite books of my teen years, Peter Beagle’s brilliant fantasy The Last Unicorn.

I’m not even going to try to sketch out the plot of the book as a whole.  The point that’s relevant here centers on a place, the town of Hagsgate, and its people, who are very rich. They live in the kingdom ruled by King Haggard, the villain of the story; they profit mightily from his rule, and are exquisitely careful not to notice anything that bears too closely on the terrifying evil that lies at the heart of his realm. They are also, as it happens, under a witch’s curse.

It occurs to me that some of my readers may not be familiar with the structure and function of curses. (What do they teach children these days?) The sort of thing you get in bad modern remakes of fairy tales, where someone inoffensive gets burdened with a dire fate that would not otherwise befall them, is strictly amateur stuff.  Professionals know that the curses that matter are the kind that unfold by their own inexorable logic from the actions and attitudes of the accursed.  The witch or wizard who finds it  necessary or appropriate to pronounce a curse doesn’t have to make anything happen; he or she simply says aloud the unmentionable realities of the situation, states the necessary consequences, and leaves. The efforts of the accursed to avoid falling victim to the curse, without actually changing the things that make the curse inevitable, then proceed to drive the curse to its fulfillment.

The witch who cursed Hagsgate was a thoroughly competent professional. Here’s what she said:

You whom Haggard holds in thrall,
Share his feast and share his fall.
You shall see your fortune flower
Till the torrent takes the tower.
Yet none but one of Hagsgate town
May bring the castle swirling down.

You’ll notice that, like any good curse, this one includes an escape hatch:  skip Haggard’s feast and you skip the fall, too. Beagle’s story doesn’t mention anyone who used the escape hatch, but there will have been somebody.  There always is; whether we’re talking about Númenor, the City of Destruction, the warren of the shining wire, or some other place where a curse is at work, someone’s going to walk away.  That sounds very heroic in retrospect, but that’s not the way it works in practice. In practice, those who walk away are as often as not weeping hysterically, torn between the fear of giving up everything they know and the knowledge that leaving is the only choice left for them, and trying without much success not to listen to the taunts or feel the stones flung by those who stay behind.

If, as Ursula LeGuin says in one of her best stories, they seem to know where they are going, it’s because "anywhere but here" is an easy course to chart at first. Mind you, some never even make it out the city gates; some come stumbling back to town a few days or weeks or years later; some are never seen again, and pebbles will grow into moss-covered boulders before anybody finds out exactly what happened to them; still, there’s always one, or a few, or nine tall ships sailing from Andunië with stormwinds howling in the rigging, who leave and do something less foredoomed with their lives.

It’s the ones who stay behind, though, who are more relevant to the point I want to make. It’s very easy to stay behind. Early on, when walking away is an easy thing, the threat of the curse is so far off that it’s seductive to think you can stay in Hagsgate for just a little while longer and still escape.  Later on, you’ve come to enjoy the practical benefits that being a citizen of Hagsgate has to offer; you’ve got personal and financial ties to the place, and so you come up with ornate theories packed with dubious logic and cherrypicked data to convince yourself that the curse isn’t real or that it will only affect other people. As the curse begins to work, in turn, you start making excuses, insisting that you did everything you could reasonably be expected to do, and it’s all somebody else’s fault anyway.  Finally, when the full reality of your fate stares you in the face and your last chance of escape is almost gone, comes the terrible temptation to treat the price you’re about to pay as a measure of the value of what you’ve gotten by staying in Hagsgate, and you cling to it ever more frantically as it drags you down.

Now of course a witch didn’t actually put a curse on industrial society—at least, if one did, I haven’t heard about it—but fairy tales keep their hold on our collective imagination because they contain a wealth of valid wisdom, wrapped up in a compact and memorable form.  To say that there’s a curse on industrial society is simply to use an archaic metaphor for a point I’ve been discussing in these essays since The Archdruid Report began six years ago, which is that the consequences of industrial society’s mismanagement of its relations with the planet will not go away just because we don’t want to deal with them. That metaphor has a range of relevant features, and one of them is that any effective response to the curse—or, if you will, the predicament of our time—has to begin by taking stock of the ways that each of us, as individuals, contributes by our own attitudes and actions to the mess we’re in, and then making appropriate changes.

After six years, I shouldn’t even have to say that daydreaming about running off to some conveniently unaffordable eco-homestead in the country doesn’t count.  Unless you’re in a position to do that, and the vast majority of us aren’t, that’s simply another evasion. What’s required instead is the less romantic but far more productive task of adapting in place: figuring out how, living where you live now, you can place much less of a burden on the biosphere, and help other people do the same thing. It probably has to be said that perfection isn’t a reasonable expectation here—there’s a long learning curve, and our culture and built environment place significant obstacles in the way—but a great deal can be done nonetheless  That can easily lead into activism of various kinds, for those who feel called to do that specific kind of work; it can also lead in plenty of other constructive directions.

Still, that’s not a popular message just now, and I’m guessing that it’s going to become a great deal more unpopular as industrial civilization stumbles deeper into crisis. It doesn’t require a witch’s curse to make people cling frantically to exactly those things that are destroying them and their future, just the psychology of previous investment and a few other standard self-defeating habits of the human mind.  Still, there’s the choice: share the feast and share the fall, or wake up and walk away. Which will you do?

End of the World of the Week #23

Comet Kohoutek, the otherwise inoffensive deep-space snowball that provided the excuse for David Berg’s 1973 prophecy of imminent doom, was hardly the first comet to become the center of a frenzy of misinformation centered around a supposed threat to Earth’s very survival. Sixty-three years earlier, Halley’s Comet had a great many people trembling in imminent expectation of apocalypse, and it was all because of a nifty new scientific advance.

Spectroscopy, the process by which light can be used to determine the chemical composition of things in outer space, was the hot new research technology in astronomy in those days, and as Halley’s Comet came swinging along its accustomed orbit in early 1910, astronomers turned their telescopes on the tail, hoping that light passing through it would give them a glimpse of what comets are made of. The new technology performed to spec, and one of the chemicals that was detected in the tail was cyanogen, (CN)2, a poisonous gas. Meanwhile, astronomers tracking the comet’s orbit announced that the Earth would pass through the comet’s tail on May 20 of that year. 

The contemporary equivalent of the tabloid press in America jumped on those details, combined them, and announced that the comet’s tail was a vast cloud of poison gas that would exterminate life on Earth as the planet passed through it. There was quite a respectable panic in some American cities as May 20 came close. America being the land of the entrepreneurial spirit, some public-spirited souls began manufacturing "comet pills" that people could take to protect themselves from those billowing clouds of cyanogen, and they sold extremely well.

As it happens, the tail of a comet isn’t a billowing cloud of anything; it’s not far from hard vacuum, and the molecules of cyanogen in it were so widely scattered that they never posed a threat to anything at all.  May 20 passed, nothing happened, and Halley’s Comet wheeled back out to the far reaches of the solar system, leaving the manufacturers of "comet pills" richer and their customers, hopefully, a little bit wiser.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not