The Future's Further Shores

Last week’s post on the future of the peak oil movement seems to have been timely. In and around the unraveling of global economic and political structures that accounts for a growing share of the evening news – Eliot’s “cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air” have plenty of equivalents just now – quite a few figures in the peak oil scene have begun reorienting themselves to a world in which the coming of peak oil has stopped being a preoccupation of the fringe and become one of the simple and inescapable realities of our time.

This is not to say that all these reorientations are well advised. Sharon Astyk, for example, has proposed aligning the peak oil movement with climate activism; in the abstract, this is a logical idea, but in the real world it’s an invitation to disaster. The climate change movement has science solidly on its side, to be sure, but it’s proven hopelessly inept in dealing with the decidedly unscientific worlds of public relations and politics; climate activists have time and again allowed their opponents to define the terms of the debate, and relied on the prestige of science to make their case at a time when that prestige, already at a low ebb, is continuing to wane. Their opponents have not exactly been slow to take advantage of these missteps.

At this point we’re thus probably going to have to wait for the first major climate catastrophe to hit the industrial world before any of the world’s major polluting nations will be willing to change their ways. Aligning peak oil with the failing climate activism movement won’t change that, but will make it easier for the political establishments of the world’s nations to ignore peak oil for another few years; worse still, it might teach peak oil activists the same bad habits that have scuppered what was once a formidable climate activism movement, and produce similar results a second time around.

Rather more disturbing is Michael Brownlee’s recent manifesto calling for a new "Deep Transition" movement unique to the United States. Now of course the label "deep," when applied to any set of ideas, is a not very subtle way of calling the competition shallow, but there’s more going on here that that bit of one-upsmanship. Those of my readers who are familiar with the current flutter in alternative dovecotes around the rollover of the Mayan calendar in 2012 may notice a recognizable flavor in Brownlee’s prose; from the hammering on apocalyptic imagery to the sweeping vagueness of its proposed response – not omitting references to "the Sacred," that convenient catchall for the religious irreligiosity of our age – there’s nothing in it that would be out of place in the writings of yet another millennarian New Age sect.

Regular readers of this blog are aware that I have serious doubts about the Transition movement, but it has at least an even chance of doing some good as the industrial world stumbles through the opening decades of its decline and fall. Those mass movements for collective redemption that sociologists call "revitalization movements" are another matter, for the only thing that exceeds their emotional appeal in times of collective crisis is their futility in practice. Rob Hopkins’ measured response to Brownlee’s manifesto made the same point in a typically understated way; it’s to be hoped that people involved in Transition here in the US will listen.

I’m glad to say, though, that not all the reorientations under way are as misdirected as the ones I’ve just cited. A much more promising example is under way at The Oil Drum, which seems to be waking up to the fact that it’s become the de facto go-to place for quality peak oil information, and is adjusting its public presence in response. I find it particularly interesting to watch that adjustment in action, because one of the things the TOD community appears to be distancing itself from is me.

Witness the discussion in the Drumbeat comments a week ago, where a number of TOD regulars weighed in at some length about their discomfort with the phrase "green wizard." That’s exactly the sort of thinking TOD needs right now. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, during which it provided what was quite literally the world’s best media coverage of the crisis and response, the Drum has a reputation to maintain and a global audience to address. I would not be the least surprised if ten years from now, the premier peak oil journal in print – the sort of peer-reviewed quarterly that every serious thinker in the field has to have on his or her bookshelf – is published by the nonprofit that runs TOD, and draws some of its best authors from the stable of bloggers that currently keeps TOD stocked with cutting-edge analyses and up-to-date information.

That isn’t the kind of project that would benefit from being associated with an archdruid who promotes green wizardry. Still, as one of the participants in the discussion pointed out, neither my audience nor my strategy are the same as theirs. A viable movement responding to the crisis of peak oil needs its sober websites packed with facts and figures, phrased and presented in terms both acceptable and compelling to the political and business elites who wield so much influence nowadays; still, that’s not the only thing it needs. It also needs a broad penumbra of individuals and small groups who are willing to explore those possibilities that don’t happen to appeal to men in business suits. The benefits that respectability brings to The Oil Drum would be wasted there; what’s needed, rather, is a willingness to pursue options outside the fashionable ideas of the moment. In a trajectory of that kind, a desire for respectability is a hindrance, and the wry embrace of an identity society as a whole rejects – for example, "wizard" – has quite commonly helped.

I’m pretty much restricted to such an approach, as it happens. It still surprises me how many people think I use the term "archdruid" as some sort of marketing gimmick, when it’s not exactly a secret that Archdruid is my job title, as head of one of the several dozen organizations that emerged from the 18th century revival of Druid nature spirituality. I try to wear my religion lightly in contexts where it’s not specifically relevant, such as this one, but it doesn’t take much searching on the internet to figure out that some of the beliefs I hold are not going to qualify me for respectability any time in this age of the world. The fact that The Archdruid Report was originally started with the intention of talking about peak oil and the future of industrial society to other members of the Druid community just adds spice to the resulting stew.

Still, a strategy of dissensus – the deliberate pursuit of radically different and even contradictory possibilities – is not simply a counsel of convenience for those who don’t have any other choice. If we’re to meet the crises ahead with even the smallest hope of something other than total failure, the options that need to be explored cannot be limited to those that the current political and business elites – the people whose decisions by and large got us into this mess, remember – happen to find acceptable. The resources that those elites can bring to bear are important, and need to be directed into anything that can be made acceptable to them – the rebuilding of the US rail system comes to mind as a very good start – but the options that can be made acceptable to today’s elites will only contain a small fraction of the options that need to be put to work.

That assertion doesn’t require belief in any deliberate conspiratorial intention on the part of those elites, by the way. The elites that mostly run today’s industrial societies, like their equivalents in every other human society, have a deeply conservative streak under whatever surface layer of fashionable radicalism may be popular at any given time. They have the positions of influence that they do because they have the educations, hold the opinions, and think the thoughts that their peers, and more particularly the immediately prior generation of their peers, considered suitable to their roles. In a society that’s more or less sustainable, this is a powerful source of stability; in one that’s stumbled into an unsustainable human ecology, these same pressures for elite conformity can make it next to impossible for anyone in charge to think about the world in any way other than the one that’s making disaster inevitable.

This is where dissensus and the deliberate encouragement of the eccentric, the improbable and the rejected come into their own. We are far past the point at which an organized, society-wide program to deal with the crisis of industrial civilization is possible – as the Hirsch report pointed out five years ago, that had to start twenty years before the peak of petroleum production, which puts that hope a good quarter century into the realm of might-have-beens – and even if the option still existed, the political will to make it happen simply isn’t there. That means that aiming for flexible ad hoc responses cobbled together out of whatever resources come to hand is probably the best option we’ve got. Focusing on those possibilities that can be done on a shoestring, and maximizing the total number of these that get tested in the immediate future, is therefore a crucially important strategy right now. Even if most of those efforts fail, this approach will likely yield the largest number of useful options to mitigate the crisis in the short run and manage some degree of recovery later on.

This logic has at least one implication that probably won’t sit well with many of my readers: that people should be encouraged to pursue projects that, according to the best current evidence, have little apparent chance of succeeding. That’s a necessary consequence of a dissensus-based approach, though; as Charles Fort used to say, "It is by thinking things that schoolboys know better than to think that discoveries are made." The one caveat that has to be added, though, is that anyone advocating any such project actually needs to be doing something about it.

The Bussard fusion reactor makes a good example. It’s a modest variation on the Farnsworth fusor, an interesting laboratory curiosity dating from the 1950s;. It’s fairly consistently proven able to fuse small numbers of hydrogen nuclei into helium, but there’s no good reason to think it can produce anything like as much energy as it uses up. For several years now the Bussard reactor has nonetheless been cited over and over again by people on internet forums as a reason not to worry about peak oil – that is, to use a terminology suggested in an earlier post, as a lullaby.

Still, there are a modest number of people – according to recent media reports, around a dozen – who have built Bussard-style devices in their basements and achieved nuclear fusion, confirmed by neutron detectors. None of them are producing net positive energy at this point, or anything close to it. Still, I have the utmost respect for these people; they’re putting their money, as well as their time and energy, where their mouths are. If there’s any chance that Bussard was right, this is how we’ll find out.

The flip side of this is simple enough: if people want to come to a peak oil blog (or anywhere else, for that matter) and insist that the Bussard reactor is going to save us all, the appropriate response is, "Are you building one?" If they are, well and good; if they’re chipping in as much as they can afford to help cover the expenses of someone who’s building one, that will pass; otherwise, they’re singing lullabies and may be disregarded.

The same principle can be applied to any other proposed response to the crisis of industrial society. If it’s viable as a basement-workshop project, then anybody who intends to promote it online or elsewhere had better be building one. If it’s too large, complex, and expensive for a basement workshop, it’s probably going to be too large, complex, and expensive for a civilization caught in the jaws of fossil fuel depletion, climate instability, and economic unraveling. There are some exceptions – again, the rebuilding of America’s rail system comes to mind – but in that case there are still ways to contribute, at least to the extent of the cost of a round trip ticket now and then.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve limited my focus in these posts on green wizardry to things that I do myself, or have done in the past and am gearing up to do in the future as soon as funds and time permit. The kind of SUV environmentalism that waxes rhapsodic about all the things everybody else ought to do for the environment, while doing few or none of them, is not a viable response to the crisis of our time. I’m willing to open my mouth about energy conservation and organic gardening, appropriate tech and antique tech, doing without and doing with less, because these are things that I do myself; I’d hardly offer myself as any kind of paragon of virtue – there’s much more that I could be doing – but I’m not going to advocate what I’m not willing to do.

On the other hand, if somebody’s actually out there putting some proposed response to the test, they ought to be given the benefit of the doubt, not to mention the respect due to anybody who’s trying to live up to their aspirations. I would extend that rule very far. The biodynamic agriculture devised most of a century ago by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner, for example, combines quite a few very sensible steps – Steiner’s the place where modern organic gardening got the idea of raised beds, for example – with some things, such as planting by astrological influences, that most people reject out of hand these days. I know people who use Steiner’s methods, and they seem to get good results; if planting by the stars and mixing weird herbal concoctions into their compost helps them grow organic food crops and keep people fed during the times to come, more power to ‘em.

In the weeks to come these posts will be transitioning from food, the first of three themes in the Green Wizard project, to heat, which is the second. While that’s happening, though, I’d like to offer a friendly challenge to my readers, and especially to those of them who are working with green wizardry: choose something improbable that you think might just offer a possible response to any of the aspects of the crisis of industrial society, and get to work on it. If that involves piecing together a Farnsworth fusor in the basement, good; if it involves learning planting by the Moon, good; if it involves – well, whatever it involves, if it appeals to you, get on with it. Don’t leave it to someone else; do it yourself, because that’s the only way it’s going to happen.

Passion can’t be legislated, and the sort of passion that led, for example, Gregor Mendel to spend years crossing pea plants to tease out the secrets of heredity is what we need right now. At worst, you’ll be able to draw a line under an unhelpful approach so that resources can go elsewhere; at best you may just provide the world with some small but valuable piece of the puzzle of survival. If we’re to reach the future’s further shores with any of the more useful legacies of the last three centuries intact, that willingness to take personal responsibility for making things happen is one of the things we need most right now.