The Failure of Reason

Around once a month, since I first started this blog, I get plans in the mail for saving the world. I don’t mean this last phrase derisively; the plans come from people who are deeply concerned about the consequences of peak oil, global warming, and other manifestations of the predicament of industrial society, and set out to find a solution. Many of them are extremely well crafted and, if put into place, would accomplish much. Every one of them, even the loopiest, would likely have better results than the industrial world’s current policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss.

The most recent example arrived a couple of days ago, courtesy of Tom Wayburn, a Texas engineer and a reader of this blog; you’ll find his plan online at and He’s far from alone in his efforts. M. King Hubbert himself proposed a scheme of social and economic reorganization to deal with peak oil back in the 1970s; you can find it at These two are only a drop in the oil bucket, of course. Go looking for peak oil solutions online or in bookstores and you can find them by the dozen.

The best publicized of them, and indeed one of the best in practical terms, is the oil depletion protocol originally crafted by the Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Richard Heinberg’s latest book The Oil Depletion Protocol does a fine job of explaining the protocol and showing how it could manage the transition to a sustainable society. It’s an extremely well thought out plan, and if implemented, would almost certainly make the coming of the deindustrial age a good deal less ugly than it will otherwise be. The only criticism it merits is that its chances of actually being put into effect make a snowball in hell look like a safe investment.

Unfortunately, the same sort of criticism can be leveled at the entire genre of peak oil solutions, from Tom Wayburn’s project to such highly publicized plans as the oil depletion protocol or the one presented in Lester Brown’s much-discussed book Plan B. There has never been a shortage of good ideas for dealing with peak oil or, for that matter, any other aspect of the predicament of industrial society. What has been lacking consistently is the collective will to put any of those ideas into practice.

It bears noticing that between 1956, when Hubbert originally announced the approach of peak oil, and the present moment, a remarkable paradox has unfolded. On the one hand, the evidence for the imminence and catastrophic potential of peak oil has grown steadily more convincing. On the other hand, the prospect that any constructive response to peak oil will actually be implemented has grown steadily more distant. Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major political party in every major nation in the industrial world supports pro-growth economic policies that move the world further away from a transition to sustainability with each passing day, and the more imminent and obvious the dangers become, the more stubbornly the world’s political and economic systems cling to exactly the policies that guarantee the worst possible outcome in the not very long run.

Now a good part of this astonishing failure of will and vision can be traced to familiar factors. Many peak oil authors have talked about the way that today’s political and economic systems have perpetual growth hardwired into them, and malfunction or break down completely when the rate of growth even starts to approach zero. Many of them, myself among them, have also discussed the way that people’s ability to weigh benefits against risks breaks down just as spectacularly when the benefits are immediate and the risks lie somewhere in the indefinite future. Still, there’s more to the issue than this. The same underground realm of mythic narratives and magical symbols I’ve been trying to explore in recent posts has a major role in setting the stage for the paradox just outlined.

The crux of the matter, I suggest, is that attempts to change the course of industrial civilization without changing the narratives and symbols that guide it on its way are doomed to failure, and those narratives and symbols cannot be changed effectively with the toolkit that peak oil advocates have used up to this point. Behind this specific technical problem lies a much vaster predicament – the failure of the Enlightenment project of rebuilding human civilization on the foundations of reason.

The Enlightenment, for those of my readers who received an American public school education – which in matters of history, at least, amounts to no real education at all – was an 18th century movement of European thought that laid most of the intellectual foundations of the modern world. The leading lights of the movement argued that the transformation that Galileo, Newton, and their peers accomplished in the sciences needed to happen in the realms of social, political, and economic life as well. To them, the traditional ideologies that framed European society in their time amounted to one vast festering mass of medieval superstition that belonged in the compost heap of history. Voltaire’s famous outburst against the Catholic church – Ecrasez l’infame! (“Chuck the wretched thing!”) – gave voice to a generation’s revulsion against a worldview that in their minds had become all too closely bound to bigotry and autocracy.

Mind you, there was quite a bit of truth to the charge. The upper classes of 18th century Europe had been as strongly affected by the scientific revolution’s disenchantment of the world as anyone else, and in their hands, traditional ways of thinking that once wove a bond of common interest among people of different classes turned into abstractions veiling brutal injustice. Like so many social critics, though, the thinkers of the Enlightenment combined a clear if one-sided view of the problem with unworkably Utopian proposals for its solution. They argued that once superstition was dethroned and public education became universal, rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific analysis would take charge, leading society progressively toward ever better social conditions.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The ideology of the Enlightenment swept all before it, forcing even the most diehard reactionaries to phrase their dissent in the terms of an argument the Enlightenment itself defined, and it remains the common currency of social, economic, and political thought in the Western world to this day. One of its consequences is exactly the habit of producing rational plans for social improvement that spawned the torrent of peak oil solutions we’re discussing in this post. Since Voltaire’s time, the idea that building a better social mousetrap will cause the world to beat a path to one’s door has pervaded our civilization.

The irony, of course, is that neither in Voltaire’s time nor in ours has social change actually happened that way. The triumph of the Enlightenment itself did not happen because the social ideas circulated by its proponents were that much better than those of their rivals; it happened because the core mythic narrative of the Enlightenment proved to be more emotionally powerful than its rivals. That narrative, of course, is the myth of progress, the core element of the worldview that has made, and now threatens to destroy, the modern world.

This irony defines a faultline running through the middle of the modern mind. On the one hand, our economists treat human beings as rational actors making choices to maximize their own economic benefit. On the other hand, the same companies that hire those economists also pay for advertising campaigns that use the raw materials of myth and magic to encourage people to act against their own best interests, whether it’s a matter of buying overpriced fizzy sugar water or the much more serious matter of continuing to support the unthinking pursuit of business as usual in the teeth of approaching disaster. The language of rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific analysis is itself part of a mythic narrative of the sort it attempts to dismiss from serious consideration.

The crux of the problem, as suggested in an earlier post in this blog, is that human thought is mythic by its very nature. We think with myths, as inevitably as we see with eyes and eat with mouths. Thus any attempt to bring about significant social change must start from the mythic level, with an emotionally powerful and symbolically meaningful narrative, or it will go nowhere. The founders of the Enlightenment recognized this, and accomplished one of the great intellectual revolutions of history by harnessing the power of myth in the service of their project. The very nature of their legacy, though, has made it much harder for others to recognize the role of myth in social change.

Thus it’s not accidental that the great storytellers of recent history, the figures who catalyzed massive changes by the creative use of myth, have mostly come from the fringes of the Western cultural mainstream. Two examples are particularly worth citing here. Mohandas Gandhi, who broke the grip of the British Empire on India by retelling the myth of European colonialism so powerfully that even the colonial powers fell under the spell of his story, drew on his own Third World culture as well as his Western education to pose a challenge to the reigning narratives of the West that they had no way to counter. On the other side of the scale, but no less powerfully, Adolf Hitler came out of the crawlspaces of Vienna’s urban underclass with a corrupted version of Central European occult traditions, and turned them into a myth that mesmerized an entire nation and plunged the planet into the most catastrophic war in its history. In rational terms, the story of either man’s achievements seems preposterous – another measure of the limits of reason, and its failure to plumb the depths of human motivation.

If something constructive is to be done about peak oil and the rest of the predicament of industrial society, in other words, yet another round of reasonable plans will not do the trick. The powers that must be harnessed are those of myth, magic, and the irrational. What remains to be seen is whether these will be harnessed by a new Gandhi...or a new Hitler.