The Limits of Incantation

Since I started talking about the end of the industrial age in this blog, not quite five years ago, a fair number of my readers have had some difficulty imagining what industrial decline would look like in practice. That’s been a hard question to answer, not least because the notion that the only possible futures are progress or catastrophe has been repeated so often that it’s become integral to most contemporary worldviews.

Still, events have taken care of the matter. Readers of this blog who still want to know what the decline of an industrial civilization looks like need only take a good look at the latest news.

I could pull out any number of examples from the ongoing flurry of current affairs, but the ones that come readiest to hand are also the ones on most people’s minds these days. The cascading series of disasters in Japan is first on the list, of course. Poised unsteadily on a set of volcanic islands in one of the world’s most tectonically active areas, the Japanese have been hammered by massive earthquakes and tsunamis at regular intervals since before the dawn of recorded history, with a commensurate cost in death and human suffering; there are good reasons why Japanese culture so insistently stresses the impermanence of life and the transience of worldly things.

This time, though, the ordinary convulsions of the earth and sea intersected with an aging and brittle technostructure in ways that are amplifying the damage. Exhibit A, of course, is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Built in the early 1960s using a design now considered dubiously safe, and pushed past the safe limits of its working life for the usual economic reasons, the plant turned out to be just that little bit too fragile to deal with the tsunami. A breakdown in the cooling system launched a series of cascading systems failures; as I write these words, it’s anyone’s guess whether the emergency crews who are risking their lives in the face of potentially lethal radiation will be able to get the crisis under control, or whether a chunk of northeastern Japan will get a dusting of high-level nuclear waste.

Meanwhile large sections of the global economy are quietly grinding to a halt as products and components from the shattered factory belt of northeastern Japan vanish from the world’s shelves. Global supply chains and just-in-time ordering turned out to have the same problem as every other attempt to improve efficiency by eliminating redundancy: they work great, until something goes wrong and you need a fallback option. Another object lesson in the hazards of too much interconnection is coming from global stock markets, which have been slapped silly by the sensible decision of millions of Japanese to cash in their foreign investments and get some liquidity in place where it counts right now, at home. The yen is up, most stock indexes are down, and another layer of instability has been added to a global economy staggering under the blows it’s already received.

Instability of another kind comes from the Middle East. In Libya, what looked like yet another canned “color revolution” suddenly had the script torn up by Col. Moammar Gaddafi’s unwillingness to play along. Whatever his failings as a person and a head of state, a lack of resolve is clearly not one of them; while Western politicians were smugly dismissing him as a has-been, Gaddafi marshalled his remaining forces, consolidated his position, and then launched a forceful military response that seems to have turned the civil war in his favor. Proponents of nouveau internet insurgencies take note: tanks, fighter planes, and infantry may be hopelessly old-fashioned, but that doesn’t make them ineffective.

The ruling house of Bahrain turned to similar methods when the insurgent flashmob occupying large sections of the capital turned violent. A call for help to neighboring monarchs brought in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who promptly crushed the rising. The Saudis themselves had gotten on top of a similar rising at a much earlier stage; Western reporters in Saudi Arabia have noted with some discomfort that anyone who tried to organize protest rallies on the internet or the cell phone network could not be contacted shortly thereafter. It’s not unreasonable to be appalled at such methods of repression, but it’s worth remembering that the Western heads of state who denounce them, if they were faced with the prospect of an armed insurgency in their own countries, would do exactly the same things.

Behind the spread of insurgencies across the Arab world, in turn, lies the simple mathematics of food prices. Last month the cost of food worldwide passed the previous record set in 2008. To most people in America, where food accounts for a small portion of the family budget, that’s an inconvenience; to most people in the nonindustrial world, where it’s not uncommon for families to spend half their income putting food on the table, it’s an existential threat. Starving people do desperate things, such as trying to overthrow the local government. Autocratic governments with their backs to the wall do equally desperate things, such as calling in air strikes, or shoving dissidents out the back end of a van in the middle of the Arabian desert a couple of hundred miles from the nearest water source, doubtless with a pious wish that Allah will protect the virtuous.

So we’ve got technological crises, economic crises, and political crises, all driving a variety of feedback loops that intersect with other dimensions of the predicament of industrial society in ways that are hard to predict. Those of my readers who want a model for the long twilight of the industrial age may find this one useful; rinse and repeat, with occasional pauses and intensifications, and you’ve probably got a decent model of the next couple of centuries. Still, there’s another factor in play that’s worth a comment or two.

When Gaddafi refused to bow out and the insurgency in Libya tipped over into civil war, my readers will have noticed, President Obama’s response was simply to proclaim, as loudly as possible, “Gaddafi must go.” He had plenty of company in saying those words, but neither he nor any of his fellow heads of state did anything noticeable to make Gaddafi’s departure happen. Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s tanks and planes continued to pound the insurgents.

It’s not as though the western powers don’t have options, either, at least in theory. Any European nation much larger than Belgium could easily stop Gaddafi’s offensive in its tracks and take out his air force into the bargain, and we won’t even talk about what a spare US carrier group could do. For that matter, a few well-packed planeloads of munitions landing at Benghazi would probably be enough to turn the tide of the civil war back in the insurgency’s favor. The problem is that the situation in the Middle East as a whole is risky enough that any intervention, anywhere, could trigger drastic and highly unwelcome shifts in the balance of power.

At this point, after all, in the wake of the West’s abandonment of longtime ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the Arab nations that produce most of the world’s oil have got to be asking themselves whether a sudden shift in allegiances might be in their best interests, and Western support of the Libyan insurgents would put ample frosting on top of that cake. If the Saudi monarch were to pick up the phone one fine morning, dial Beijing, and inquire about the possibility of a mutual defense pact, I doubt he’d be put on hold for long An awareness of this possibility has to be on the minds of policymakers in Washington and Brussels. This likely has much to do with the fact that the titular commander in chief of the world’s most expensive military machine has been reduced to mouthing “Gaddafi must go” as though it was an incantation.

Most of the way around the world, in Japan, the same reliance on incantation is playing a significant role in the Kan administration’s response to the Fukushima disaster. Right now, to be fair, the only factors that actually matter are the small team of beleaguered technicians who are struggling there at the plant, on the one hand, and the remorseless laws of nuclear physics on the other, so officials in Tokyo really have few other options. Incantations have long counted among the fine arts in Japan – it bears remembering, for example, that the imperial broadcast that announced surrender at the end of the Second World War referred to Japan’s total defeat in that conflict by saying, “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” When a high government official announced a few days ago that one of the containment vessels at Fukushima Daiishi was “not necessarily intact,” in other words, those who were paying attention knew that it was time to worry – or to relocate.

Still, far and away the most colorful use of incantations in response to the Fukushima disaster has been in the media and the blogosphere here in America, where proponents of nuclear power have worked overtime to try to put their particular spin on a situation that seems to take a perverse pleasure in frustrating their efforts. It’s likely that much of this is being bought and paid for by the nuclear industry; using paid internet flacks to saturate social media with a desired message has already become a standard tactic in the worlds of politics and big business.

Still, whether they’ve issued from paid cyberflacks or unpaid true believers, the incantations in question make an intriguing spectacle. They started out, in the early days of the crisis, presenting rosy estimates of the situation, even claiming that the results of the tsunami showed just how safe nuclear power is. When reactor buildings started blowing up and made that last claim a bit hard to defend, insisting that the problem was a matter of one obsolete reactor design, and trotting out various pieces of untested vaporware as the wave of the future became the order of the day. When the situation started really spiralling downhill, it was time for rants about the evils of coal, as though that’s the only alternative, and then, inevitably, claims that the only alternative to nuclear power is to slink back to the caves.

There is, of course, another alternative. It’s the alternative that we’re all going to take anyway, as fossil fuels deplete and the various subsidies that make nuclear power and most of the other alternatives look economically viable go away forever. That alternative is to use much less energy than we do today. Here in the United States, it bears repeating, we use three times as much energy per capita as people in most European countries, to prop up a standard of living that by most measures isn’t as good. Fairly modest conservation measures, of the sort discussed in recent posts here, could render every nuclear power plant in America surplus if they were applied nationwide; a more serious national effort aimed at getting down to European levels of consumption could probably manage to turn most of the coal-fired plants into museum pieces as well.

Again, this is what we’re going to do anyway, whether we choose that route or not. The vast government subsidies that currently prop up not only nuclear power, but most of the rest of America’s energy production and consumption, are not going to be sustainable for all that much longer; neither, of course, are the “energy subsidies” that every other energy source derives from the immense quantities of cheap petroleum that are used to mine, transport, and provide raw materials for everything from solar panels to nuclear power plants. Equally, the American imperial presence in the Middle East and elsewhere, which currently backstops a global economic system that provides the 5% of us who live in America with 25% of the world’s energy resources and around 33% of its raw materials and industrial product, has a relatively short shelf life ahead of it, and as that comes unraveled, we are all going to have to learn to live with much less.

Faced with these unpalatable prospects, and a distinct shortage of practical options for doing anything about them, it’s not surprising that incantation has become the order of the day. In the twilight years of civilizations, as political, economic, and technological systems failures hamstring the ability of leaders and pressure groups alike to get their way, it’s a fairly common experience. Still, as an archdruid, I have a certain professional interest in incantations, and I find it disappointing to see them applied in situations where they’re not going to accomplish anything – say, to unseat a dictator who’s proven his willingness to use more robust means to keep himself wedged in place, or to make a brittle, dangerous, unsustainable, overcentralized, and fantastically expensive technology like nuclear power meet the needs of a declining industrial civilization. If any of the people involved would like to learn something about the proper uses and limits of incantations, I’d be happy to provide some tips.


On a brighter note, I’m delighted to report that choreographer Valerie Green and Dance Entropy, a New York City-based experimental dance troupe, will shortly be premiering a new work, “Rise and Fall,” inspired in part by my book The Long Descent, with music by nonconventional industrial group the Tone Casualties. Green writes:

“’Rise and Fall’ is an abstract dance for five performers based on the cycle of a civilization. This experimental dance work is comprised of multiple sections running the course of the following cycle: a new beginning, tracing footprints and remnants of the past, on to a developing population, agriculture, industrialization, modernization, awareness, gross consumption, terror, decline, population dissipation, and knowledge to begin again. The inspiration from this book cane from a recent visit to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, and the book The Long Descent by John Michael Greer...I have found the above ideas thought provoking and an inspiration in the development of a non-traditional movement vocabulary, and a compelling work of dance.”

Readers of this blog in the NYC area can see “Rise and Fall” at Dixon Place Experimental Theater at 7:30 pm, March 31, or at the Green Space Studio at 8 pm, April 8 and 17.