The Power of the Nonrational

For the release of a book on the end of industrial civilization, it was certainly good timing. Over the last week or so, as my book The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age hit the bookstores, the wheels came off the global economy. As stock markets crashed worldwide and governments panicked, I found myself wondering if the marketing people at my publisher, New Society, had managed to pull off the great-grandmother of all publicity stunts.

Now of course the crisis now under way has been building since the early 1980s, when politicians who had forgotten the lessons of the Great Depression threw out the prudent regulatory firewalls that kept banks from speculating with other people’s money. Deregulation was the word du jour, driven by a blind faith in markets that did its level best to ignore the lessons of history, and each of the crises that followed – the 1987 stock market crash, the currency implosions of the 1990s, the dotcom bubble and bust at the turn of the millennium, and the orgy of delusional finance that drove the global real estate bubble thereafter – simply brought cries for more of the same deregulation that caused the trouble in the first place.

For a quarter century, those who recalled Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and its many successors, and pointed out that uncontrolled speculation always ends the same dismal way, were told that they ought to shut up until they learned something about economics. Sober warnings from distinguished scholars were drowned out by a chorus of cheerleading, while less prestigious voices were pushed out to the fringes of the blogosphere. What is now painfully clear is that those marginalized voices were right all along, and their warnings could have spared us a massive economic disaster if the pundits and politicians who dismissed them had listened instead.

All this raises a question that deserves more attention than it usually receives: what makes a society accept or reject any given set of warnings about the future? At the ASPO-USA peak oil conference last month, a slightly more focused version of this question was much in the air. Several of the speakers expressed their frustration at the way warnings of global climate change have been picked up by the media and turned into an international cause célèbre, while warnings of the imminence of peak oil are still being dismissed as a nonissue by most people straight across the political and cultural spectrum.

It’s a fascinating question, not least because there are at least two serious problems with the case for global extinction via climate change currently being splashed across the media. The first of these was pointed up by several of the presenters at the ASPO conference: the scenarios of drastic climate change being offered by the IPCC, the government-supported panel of scientists responsible for the most widely accepted predictions, assume that the world’s production of petroleum, coal, and natural gas can increase steadily through the year 2100.

That’s a problematic assumption, to say the least. The world’s peak production of conventional petroleum happened in 2005; massive infusions of tar sand products and biofuels have kept the numbers from falling significantly since then, but with production at most of the world’s oil fields dropping steadily, the IPCC’s assumptions of steady increase are hard to support. Natural gas worldwide is expected to hit peak production around 2030. Coal is more complex, because all coal is not created equal; the most energy-intensive coal, anthracite, is all but exhausted already, and most of what remains is low-quality “brown coal,” much of which will cost more energy to extract than it yields; by 2040 at the latest, the energy yield from coal production will have reached its limit and begun an irrevocable decline. By 2100, our total consumption of all fossil fuels put together will have fallen to a very modest fraction of today’s levels, simply because there won’t be enough left to produce.

Yet there’s another difficulty with the scenarios of global ecological collapse being offered by activists and the media just now: even if the IPCC figures for production made sense, a 6°C increase in the Earth’s temperature over a century is well within the normal range of variation for our planet. The latest Greenland ice cores show, for example, that at the end of the last ice age, the Earth’s average temperature spiked up 12°C in fifty years or less; similar jolts up and down, some of them even more extreme, have happened many other times in Earth’s long history, and for most of the last billion years, this planet has been much, much warmer than it is now. Not that many millions of years ago, it bears remembering, alligators lived on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and tropical and subtropical forests covered most of the planet.

This doesn’t mean, mind you, that we can simply dump CO2 into the atmospere and ignore the consequences. What counts as normal variation for the Earth is far more than a fragile industrial civilization can cope with, and the prospect of drastic food shortages driven by wild climatic swings, plus a 50-foot rise in sea levels drowning every coastal city on Earth, should be reason enough for second thoughts. The point I hope to make, rather, is that extreme scenarios of planetary extinction have been widely accepted in popular culture, despite some very significant weaknesses, while the predictions of the peak oil community – which have a much more solid basis in fact – have been dismissed out of hand. Why?

That question cannot be answered without straying out of simple matters of fact into the murky territory of beliefs and cultural narratives. Many of the critics of these essays, and indeed some of the people who have praised them, have dismissed this side of the conversation I’ve tried to start as irrelevant to our predicament. The problem with this sort of thinking is that it’s only in the delusions of raving economists that human beings make decisions on the basis of a purely rational assessment of objectively known facts. In the real world, facts are never objectively known, and reasoning is the willing slave of its preconceptions; we project our beliefs onto the inkblot patterns of experience, and so understanding those beliefs is essential if we’re to understand the forces driving today’s choices – and thus making tomorrow’s hard facts.

Look at the beliefs underlying the idea of catastrophic global climate change and you’ll find, at their core, a story about human power. We have become so powerful through our technological progress, according to the narrative, that we are able to threaten our own survival and that of the Earth itself. The only limits most climate change advocates seem to be able to imagine are those they think we must place on ourselves; even if climate change leads to our extinction, we will at least have the glory of doing the deed ourselves. It’s almost a parody of the old atheist gibe: to prove our own omnipotence, we made a crisis so big not even we can lift it out of our way.

Underlying the idea of peak oil, though, lies a different and far more sobering view of things, because peak oil is not a story about human power; it’s a story about human limits. If the peak oil narrative is correct, the power we claimed as our own was never really ours; we got it by breaking into the earth’s treasure of stored carbon and burning it up in a few short centuries. Despite the clichés, we never conquered nature; instead, we borrowed her assets and blew them in a three-hundred-year orgy of lavish consumption. Now the bills are coming due, the balance left in the account won’t meet them, and the remaining question is how much of what we bought with all that carbon will still be ours when nature’s foreclosure proceedings finish with us.

These differences matter, because the basic assumption of the climate change narrative – the belief in human omnipotence – is a core article of faith in contemporary industrial societies. It’s so pervasive that its effects are rarely noticed, but it undergirds an astonishing range of popular attitudes and ideas. It’s axiomatic in the industrial world that anything unsatisfactory is a problem in need of a solution, and equally axiomatic that a solution can be found for it. The suggestion that some deeply unsatisfactory conditions may not be problems that can be solved but, rather, are predicaments that must be lived with, is at once unthinkable and offensive to a great many people these days.

Yet this is exactly what the peak oil narrative suggests. If the world’s conventional petroleum production peaked in 2005 and faces imminent declines, as all the evidence suggests; if none of the proposed replacements for petroleum can take up the slack, and many of them, especially the other fossil fuels, are themselves closing in on their own peaks and declines; if the technological revolutions and economic boom of the last three centuries were a product of extravagant use of these nonrenewable resources, not of such impressive intangibles as “the human spirit,” and will not outlast their material basis; if, in other words, human life is subject to hard ecological limits – if these things are true, the narrative of human omnipotence falls, and a popular and passionately held conception of humanity’s nature and destiny falls with it.

Now I have to confess that I find the narrative of human omnipotence, and the secular mythology that has grown up around it, utterly unconvincing. From the perspective of my own Druid faith, all that rhetoric about humanity’s conquest of nature is absurd; it’s as though a leaf were to daydream about conquering the tree that brought it into being, presently sustains it, and will let it fall in due time; the attitudes that lead us to picture ourselves as creation’s overlords strike me as nothing more than an extraordinary case of egomania. Still, the fact remains that, in an age that has abandoned the traditional forms of religion without uprooting the emotional needs that religions meet, many people rely on these beliefs as a source of meaning and hope.

In turn, the peak oil movement’s problems finding a hearing in the wider discourse of our time has nothing to do with a shortage of solid facts or compelling reasoning; it has both of these in abundance. Rather, I have come to think, those difficulties are rooted in the movement’s failure, at least so far, to address these deeper, nonrational issues. If the peak oil message is correct, then the Great God Progress is dead; however misguided the faith of his votaries may turn out to be in hindsight, it’s a deeply held faith, and those who rely on it to give their lives meaning and hope can be counted on to cling to it until and unless some convincing alternative comes their way. That their clinging may keep our civilization from finding useful responses to a crisis even more challenging than today’s financial debacle is simply one of the ironies of our present situation.