The Recovery of the Human

The myth of the machine, the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post, has implications that go well beyond the usual terms of discussion in the peak oil scene. One of those implications, which I mentioned briefly last week, unfolds from the way that so many people who are concerned about peak oil fixate obsessively on the hope that some kind of machine will solve the problem.

There are at least three ways in which this fixation gets in the way of any meaningful response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. The first, of course, is that peak oil isn’t a problem, because by definition a problem at least potentially has a solution. Peak oil has no solution. That’s true in the narrow sense of the term—no possible turn of events will allow industrial civilization to extract a limitless supply of crude oil from a finite planet—and it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s just as true in the broad sense—no other energy source can provide anything close to the torrent of cheap, highly concentrated energy that petroleum provided to industrial society during the last century.

Peak oil is thus a predicament rather than a problem, since nothing we or anyone else can do will make it go away. Instead, we and our descendants down through the millennia to come will have to live with the reality of a world much less lavishly stocked with concentrated energy sources than the one our ancestors inherited a few short centuries ago. The task awaiting us and our descendants is that of finding creative and humane responses to that implacable reality. To that challenging and rewarding task, in turn, the current obsession with fantasies of salvation via machine offers no help at all. Quite the contrary, by distracting attention from the adjustments that will have to be made, the obsession makes the work ahead of us more difficult than it has to be.

The second sense in which the obsession with machines gets in the way of a useful response to the predicament of peak oil is that it pushes responsibility for doing something onto someone else. I sincerely doubt that any of my readers have any influence worth noting over the decisions involved in building giant wind turbines, say, or developing thorium reactors, or turning some substantial fraction of Nevada into one giant algal biodiesel farm. This makes it easy to insist that steps like these are the appropriate response to the coming of peak oil, since the people doing the insisting don’t have to follow through on the insistence; it’s all somebody else’s job.

No doubt the sheer convenience involved in this approach has much to do with its popularity, but there’s another factor involved. An enormous amount of rhetoric about the future these days starts from the assumption that the lifestyles of the middle classes in today’s industrial societies are normal, and ought to be available indefinitely—at least to those same middle classes. Now in fact there’s nothing normal at all about the pampered and privileged lives of today’s middle classes; from strawberries in midwinter to vacations in the tropics, those lives are full of the most absurd sort of extravagance, and only a civilization surfing the tsunami of cheap energy that ours gets from fossil fuels could convince itself that such habits are anything else. Still, those who have access to such things are predictably unwilling to let go of them, and insisting that it’s someone else’s job to come up with a way to keep them around is one way to express that unwillingness—at least for the moment.

The downside of depending on someone else to do that or any other job, of course, is that dependence always has a political cost. Frank Herbert’s classic SF novel Dune has one character explain this to another with commendable precision: "Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them." The same dynamic is present whenever people allow themselves to become dependent on machines, for reasons that follow from the points made last week.

Power exerted through a machine is defined purely by I-It relationships; the only way to relate to a machine is to compel and control it, and (not, please note, "or") to be compelled and controlled by it.. That defines the direct relation of person to machine, but it also tends to define the indirect relation of person to person when a machine is the medium. The logic here is straightforward: a machine can only transmit those aspects of relationship that require no inner life to communicate, since a machine has none. The more thoroughly an interaction between people is reshaped for machine processing, therefore, the more completely any potential for I-Thou relationship is filtered out of the interaction.

It’s possible for a relationship between people that passes through a machine to avoid being flattened out into a relationship of compulsion and control, but it takes work, and tends to be most successful when the people in question also have interactions that aren’t dependent on machines. The more that human life and human interactions are defined by machines, the more difficult this tends to become—and of course it’s not incidental that people who want to compel and control, or to be compelled and controlled, can do that easily enough without going to the trouble that’s involved in sustaining an I-Thou relationship in a world of machines. Carry this logic out to its natural endpoint and you get the total erasure of all human values that Jacques Ellul anatomized in The Technological Society, a system in which every relationship is forced into the Procrustean bed of mechanism because anything else would be inefficient.

Ellul assumed that this trend was inescapable, but then he was a man of his own time, and the first faint shockwaves of the end of the age of abundance apparently slipped past him unnoticed. Other social critics who commented on the same thing—Lewis Mumford and C.S. Lewis are among those I’ve mentioned in earlier posts—assumed, along the same lines, that only a sustained effort to oppose the rule of mechanism could halt the march of society toward a future of inhuman efficiency. What very few thinkers of their generation grasped was the extent to which the myth of the machine misstated the source of the power that machines had during the twentieth century. What made industrial society so powerful in their day wasn’t any particular strength or virtue in the cult of mechanism itself, or in the habits of thinking that an obsession with mechanism made popular for a time; it was simply that during a relatively brief window of historic time, the amount that could be done by machines powered by fossil fuels, and following the internal logic of machinery, was vastly greater than the amount that could be done by humans powered by human energy sources, and following their own internal logic.

That window of time is coming to an end around us right now, and the third sense in which an obsession with machines gets in the way of a useful response to the predicament of peak oil unfolds from that fact. Those people who are rushing around trying to find a mechanical answer to peak oil are jumping aboard a bandwagon when the horse pulling it has just fallen over dead. Lacking the cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy that only fossil fuels can provide, complex machines are by and large much less efficient than human beings, and the obsession with machines is therefore a habit of thought that’s well past its pull date.

It’s hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. Behind the machine—almost any machine in the modern industrial world—stands a sprawling infrastructure that depends on constant inputs of energy: not just energy in general, either, but very large quantities of cheap, concentrated energy fitting precise specifications. That energy powers the machine, to be sure, but it also manufactures it, keeps spare parts in stock, and powers and supplies the huge networks that make it possible for the machine to do what it does. A laptop computer all by itself is an oddly shaped paperweight; to make it function at all, you have to add electricity, and thus the entire system that produces the electricity and keeps it flowing; to make it more than a toy, you need the internet, and thus a far more complex system, which among other things uses a vast amount of additional energy; and of course to produce the laptop, the electrical grid, and the internet in the first place, counting all the products and services needed by all the economic sectors that contribute to their manufacture and functioning, you need a fairly large proportion of the entire industrial economy of the modern world.

Human beings do not suffer from the same limitations. A human being all by herself is capable of meeting her essential operating needs in a pinch, using only the very diffuse energy sources and raw materials available in a natural environment; a few dozen human beings, given suitable knowledge and skills, can support themselves comfortably over the long term on a tribal-village level, using the same diffuse energy sources; a few thousand human beings subject to all these limits can create a civilization. In a world without vast amounts of cheap energy, human flexibility and creativity consistently beats mindless mechanical rigidity. That’s why, for example, the ancient Greek inventors who created the steam turbine and crafted highly efficient gearing systems didn’t launch the industrial revolution two thousand years early; the recognition that fossil fuels existed in enough quantity to power steam engines, drive gear trains and replace human labor with mechanical force was missing, and without that, Hero of Alexandria’s steam turbine and the Antikythera device’s clockwork mechanism could never be anything more than clever toys.

A society used to turning as much of its work as possible to machines faces a similar failure of understanding when the fuel for the machines runs short. The missing piece in the present case, though, is the extraordinary potential for productive and creative work that exists within human beings. Machines fill so potent a role in our emotional lives that most people in the modern industrial world shy away from the thought of doing much of anything without them. Even if we could count on a limitless supply of cheap energy, this would be an embarrassing dependency—a shiny high-tech crutch is still a crutch, after all. A limitless supply of cheap energy, though, is exactly what we can’t count on, and so what would otherwise be merely an embarrassment is shaping up to be a lethal liability.

Thus one of the greatest challenges ahead of us as the age of abundance ends is nothing less than the rediscovery of the possibilities of our own humanity. The work that needs to be done—and in an epoch of decline, there will be plenty of that—will have to be done with the capacities woven into the human body and mind, along with those additional capacities that can be developed in both by training and practice. The effort that nowadays gets poured into teaching people how to manipulate machines will need to be redirected into teaching them how to bring out the creative and productive capacities in themselves. That can’t be done effectively, please note, by trying to manipulate them like so many machines, or by teaching them to manipulate themselves in the same manner; I-It relationships do very poorly at directing human productive and creative powers. It will require instead the ability to understand human beings as human beings rather than inconveniently squishy bipedal machines, and the capacity to enter into I-Thou relationships, that has always defined good teachers and good leaders.

Less than a hundred years ago, the sort of awareness I’m suggesting here was a common response of people across the industrial world to the mechanization of everyday life, and less than forty years ago a revival of that same approach—the human potential movement of the Seventies—achieved a not inconsiderable success before it was stomped by the same backlash that flattened the industrial world’s last real attempt to turn aside from the mess it’s made for itself. The recognition that the potential within the individual human being is the industrial world’s most thoroughly wasted and neglected resource has surfaced at intervals straight through the history of industrialism, and been hurriedly swept back under the rug time and again. Go back to the origins of contemporary industrial society in the scientific revolution, in fact, and you can trace the same opposition in the tangled conflicts by which the first versions of modern science seized the cultural conversation of their time from the remnants of Renaissance humanism and set our civilization on the path to its current predicament.

There are immense issues involved in a recovery of the human, a refocusing of attention toward what human beings can do with their own innate possibilities and potentials for learning and away from the quest to replace as many human functions as possible by this season’s crop of computerized gimmickry. I’ve touched on a few of those issues in the sequence of posts on magic that appeared here in the last months of 2011, and plan on bringing up others here and there in the months to come. For now, what I hope to get across is the core idea that the most important resources we have left at this point, the most promising potentials for a response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy, are not machines, or potential sources of fuel, or anything else outside the individual human being.

Even considering that thought, as I’ve suggested, flies in the face of deeply rooted prejudices. Point out, for example that a human mind with appropriate training can remember impressive amounts of data—there was once an entire system of mind training, the Art of Memory, designed to make this possible—and most people will come up with any number of reasons why some kind of remembering machine is a better idea. In a world with drastically limited supplies of concentrated energy and far too many urgent uses for those supplies, a system of training that can take care of the need to remember data without adding to the demand for electricity, spare parts, or the like is pretty clearly the better idea, but that recognition can only happen once people step outside the myth of the machine.

There are any number of other examples of things that human beings can do, or can learn to do, that will fill essential needs in a deindustrializing or fully deindustrialized world, when permanent shortages of concentrated energy suitable for powering machines makes the vast majority of today’s technology useless except as scrap. A significant number of them are still being practiced, or—like the Art of Memory—can be revived with relative ease from written sources dating from the Renaissance or, in some cases, more recently still. A great many more will need to be invented, or reinvented, in the years ahead. The supposedly serious thinkers of our time are unlikely to contribute anything to that task; in contemporary industrial civilization, as in every other human culture, the basic qualification that makes thinkers respectable is an unthinking acceptance of the basic myths of their era. Nowadays, the myth of progress is one of those basic myths, and the myth of the machine stands right beside it.

The myth of progress is coming to pieces around us as I write this. The myth of the machine will follow it in due time. In the interval before they dissolve and are replaced by narratives better suited to the needs and possibilities of the deindustrial age, there is a great deal that can be done to begin the rediscovery of the human, to preserve those teachings from the past that can fill critical needs in the future, and to sketch out the first rough drafts of new disciplines that will apply the creative and productive possibilities of the individual to the challenges ahead. How that might be done—well, I hope to talk about that, among other things, in posts to come.

End of the World of the Week #7

Picking the Antichrist has been a popular sport for close to twenty centuries now, since the Book of Revelation made its way into the assortment of sacred books that became today’s Bible and provided generations of believers with a set of potent metaphors for the experience of immanent evil. There have always been those who took the visionary narratives of John of Patmos as a symbolic description of eternal spiritual realities, to be sure, and there’s also a long and by no means implausible tradition of interpreting the Book of Revelation as a whole as a prophecy of the fall of the Roman Empire; still, a great many Christians over the centuries have taken the whole thing more or less literally as a factual description of events that would come to pass someday. To a significant minority of them, in turn, that "someday" was expected very soon.

Well before the tenth century, when Adso of Melk published the most popular medieval biography-in-advance of the Antichrist, a good many attempts to predict the End Times came to focus on the sinister figure of history’s ultimate bad guy, and that habit remained firmly in place as the centuries rolled past. During the American Revolution, for example, some wag figured out that the words "Royal Supremacy in Britain," when translated into Hebrew, added up to the dreaded number 666, while Tolstoy’s sprawling novel War and Peace includes a scene in which Pierre, one of the main characters, adds up the letters of "l’Empereur Napoleon" and gets the same inevitable sum. During the Second World War, with equal facility, British Christians announced with some enthusiam that if the letters in the alphabet are all given numbers starting with 101, so that A=101, B=102, and so on—well, try the name "Hitler" and see what sum you get.

Still, a little before this latter bit of ingenuity went into circulation, a great many people in the Western world were convinced that the Antichrist had clearly revealed himself at last: Benito Mussolini! As candidates go, at least in the years before the Second World War, he certainly looked impressive; his warmongering and his claim to rule a revived Roman Empire certainly helped, as did his status as Europe’s most colorful demagogue—it’s not often remembered these days that until 1940, when the Blitzkrieg abruptly tipped the scales, most people thought of Hitler as that funny little man in Germany who was trying to imitate Mussolini. There was accordingly quite a bit of prewar literature insisting that Mussolini, as the Antichrist, would shortly seize control of the world and usher in the Tribulation.

Somehow things didn’t work out that way. The funny little man in Germany turned out to be one of history’s most hideously talented megalomaniacs, while il Duce, for all his natty uniforms and blustering speeches, proved hopelessly incompetent at doing much of anything but posturing. Well before he met his end dangling from piano wire, those who had been loudly proclaiming his status as Antichrist apparent quietly pulped their books of prophecy and went looking for other candidates.

—story from Apocalypse Not