Tweedledoom and Tweedledee

It occurred to me a few days ago that this week’s Archdruid Report essay will be posted on a date that future generations may remember, at least in passing. One year from now is December 21, 2012, a date onto which quite a few people have piled extravagant labels and grand expectations, but which will get a different moniker after the fact; the one I have in mind is Nothing Happened Day.

No doubt the confidence expressed in that latter phrase will rankle with some of my readers. It’s a safe bet, in fact, that somebody’s going to post an indignant comment here insisting with some heat that the future isn’t predetermined, and a giant comet or the space brothers or something might show up on that day and make me look like an idiot. That’s a very common way of looking at things, and there are contexts in which it’s also more accurate than not; it’s just that this doesn’t happen to be one of them.

Not all predictions, after all, fall within the wiggle room that the laws of nature and the innate cussedness of things give to the future. When somebody announces that a working perpetual motion machine is about to hit the market, for example, they’re quite simply wrong—as wrong as if they announced that tomorrow the Sun will rise in the west and rocks will fall straight up into the sky. There are plenty of uncertainties in physics—more than most people outside the physics profession realize, or so I’m told—but the workings of basic conservation laws on the human scale aren’t among them. If somebody makes a prediction that contradicts those, especially if it relies on some tried-and-untrue gimmick that’s been responsible for an abundance of failed predictions before, you can safely bet your bottom dollar that it will fail again.

The same argument is just as valid, interestingly enough, for predictions that fall afoul of the limits of the cosmos in subtler ways. The example I have in mind here is the logic that drives bubbles and busts in a market economy. Behind every speculative bubble, to be a bit more specific, is the conviction that some class of assets which is rising in price will keep on doing so indefinitely. That conviction is always false, and it’s always disproven within a couple of years, but you can’t have a speculative bubble without it—it’s the delusion that the price of the asset class du jour is just going to keep on zooming upwards that leads otherwise sensible people to sink their net worth into stock or subprime mortgages, and lose it all—and so, with weary predictability, that delusion gets trotted out every time an asset class starts blowing bubbles.

What this means is that once you learn to recognize the signs of a speculative bubble, it’s possible to make exact predictions of future events with perfect confidence. A fair number of people—I was one of them, as longtime readers of this blog will recall—did that with the real estate bubble that popped so catastrophically in 2008. Few bubbles in economic history showed the signs of imminent trouble more clearly than this one, and while all but a tiny fraction of economists missed those signs, they were not lost on less blinkered observers. As Keith Brand over at the HousingPanic blog—a voice of sanity all the way through the bubble—used to say, “Dear God, this is going to end so badly.” He was right; his more specific predictions, and those of a lot of other bubble bloggers, were by and large square on targer; and those who derided them—and there were a lot of them, some with impressive credentials—have spent the last three years doing their best to pretend that they didn’t make fools of themselves.

None of this is irrelevant to our present situation, as it happens, because we’ve got another speculative bubble going at full roar in America just now. It’s considerably more focused than the real estate bubble—well, to be fair, the real estate bubble was by most measures the most gargantuan speculative bubble in the history of markets, so just about anything’s going to be more focused—but it may yet wreak comparable damage on what’s left of the American economy. The asset at its heart? Shale gas.

The shale gas bubble is the big economic story you haven’t heard about, though that will likely change in the near future. Behind all the hype about limitless shale gas are two simpler and noticeably less impressive realities. The first is that fracking technology applied to shale deposits can free up modest amounts of natural gas. The second and more important is that for the last half dozen years or so, at least, fracking technology applied to Wall Street has been able to free up immodest amounts of credit, providing the funding for an explosive growth in the natural gas drilling industry.

The intersection between those two facts has produced a classic bubble, with wildly inflated reserve estimates bringing a torrent of cheap credit to bear on an asset that can’t support the grandiose claims made for it. Because US mineral rights laws and Wall Street’s expectations both require firms that buy shale gas rights to produce right away, irrespective of the state of the market, natural gas is now selling for a price—wobbling around $3.50 per thousand cubic feet, last I checked—that covers much less than the cost of drilling and extraction. My readers will no doubt recall real estate speculators in the midst of the bubble feverishly buying rental properties even when the rent covered only a small fraction of the mortgage payments; the logic here is exactly the same.

Thus it’s as certain as anything can be that at some point in the fairly near future, probably though not certainly within a year or two, the shale gas bubble is going to pop, major names in the industry are going to go the way of Countrywide Mortgage and Washington Mutual, and gas drilling is going to slump until rising gas prices and declining budgets for exploration and drilling come back into a relationship that makes sense. Mind you, it’s equally certain that the closer we get to the bubble’s end, the more extravagant will be the claims made for the permanence and game-changing nature of the so-called “shale gas revolution,” and the more abusive will be the responses of those whose jobs depend on the bubble to any suggestion that a bubble is in fact what’s going on.

All this brings us back to December 21, 2012, and the prophecies of cataclysm or mass enlightenment that have clustered around the end of the Mayan calendar. To start with, of course, the Mayan calendar doesn’t end in 2012. In point of fact, it doesn’t end at all—like most ancient peoples, the Mayans saw time as a circle, not a straight line—and the Mayans themselves didn’t predict anything out of the ordinary for that day; it’s just the rollover date for one of the many cycles of time they tracked. The whole shebang was quite simply invented by the late José Arguelles out of a free mix of New Age philosophy, scraps of misunderstood Mayan lore, and the drug trips of Terence McKenna, and it’s thus not surprising that no two people agree on what 2012 is supposed to bring. In many ways it’s become the ultimate inkblot onto which any imaginable fantasy can be projected; since the only thing anybody seems to agree on is that whatever happens that year will be very, very big news.

Look closely, though, and the belief in a 2012 apocalypse has a great deal in common with the belief that asset prices can have an infinite upside. Both beliefs offer grand narratives that replace the ordinary patterns of human existence with a something-for-nothing fantasy. The bubble believers insist that they can have limitless wealth without having to work for it; the 2012 believers insist that they can have the new and improved world they think they want—whether that amounts to a new age of enlightenment, on the one hand, or a Hollywood movie world of heroic survivors blazing away against hordes of roving zombies, on the other—without having to work for it. In either case, what drives the fantasy is the conviction that it makes sense to sit on your backside and wait for the market, or the space brothers, or something else to give you the future you think you deserve.

That’s a very appealing notion for many people in America these days, and it’s worth glancing at the reasons why that should be so. To begin with, of course, a great many people in America do sit on their backsides and get rich. Most of them sit in the corner offices of large corporations, where they spend their time making decisions that, to judge by the results, would be better off made with one of those Magic 8-Balls: “reply hazy, ask again later.” John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out with a commendable lack of restraint in his book The Culture of Contentment that in America, as a rule, the more money you make, the less work you have to do—and, one might add, the less value you have to produce. Consider the upper reaches of the American banking industry, with their multimillion-dollar annual bonuses: what, other than misery for millions of ordinary people, do they actually produce?

For that matter, the vast majority of those who insist they’re part of the 99% these days benefit hugely from the systematic imbalances that give the 5% of humanity that live in the United States around a quarter of the world’s energy resources and around a third of its raw materials and industrial output. If Americans suddenly had to live on their fair share of the world’s resources and economic output, as I’ve pointed out more than once in the past, we’d have to take the equivalent of an 80% pay cut. This implies that, if you’re near the average, only around twenty per cent of your lifestyle is paid for by your own labor. The rest? Most Americans don’t want to know, and will insist at the top of their lungs that wealth can pop into being out of thin air or, well, almost any other absurdity you care to imagine; it beats thinking about just who is paying the costs of their comfortable lives.

Still, I’ve come to think that the most important force driving all these something-for-nothing fantasies is a subtler and more pervasive thing: the faith in progress that is the established but unmentionable religion of the modern industrial world. The belief in perpetual progress embodies exactly the same kind of grand narrative as speculative bubbles and apocalyptic prophecies: such everyday realities as diminishing returns and limits to growth are brushed aside by the conviction that the future must, by some irrevocable law of existence, always be shinier than the past. That’s what motivates the people who pop up on this and every other peak oil-related blog to insist that we can keep on powering our SUVs and Blackberries forever by building thorium reactors or harnessing zero point energy or turning the state of Nevada into one vast algae farm. It’s not incidental, either, that the vast majority of these people aren’t actually doing anything to make these dayreams happen; as with the rest of the something-for-nothing fantasies, reasons to do nothing have an important role in the payoff.

It’s the popularity of faith in progress, in turn, that makes believing apocalyptic fantasies so easy for so many people. If you’ve already bought into the idea that history is a grand narrative that assigns you a privileged place in the overall scheme of things, it’s easy to shift from one grand narrative to another—say, from the one that identifies people in today’s industrial societies as destiny’s darlings to the one that identifies them as wicked environmental sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia, or urges them to wait for salvation from outer space with all the fervor and most of the rhetoric of a Melanesian cargo cult, or claims that the Creator of the cosmos is about to unleash His genocidal fury on every human being who doesn’t buy into some particular religious ideology, or—well, you can fill in the blanks yourself, because at heart, they’re all pretty much the same. In the face of a cosmos that generally fails to cater to our sense of entitlement, they all offer narratives that make believers feel special, promise them some variation on pie in the sky, and offer them a good hearty helping of excuses for not taking action at a time in which action desperately needs to be taken.

These days, the old time faith in progress is becoming increasingly hard to sustain. It’s symptomatic that Gordon Moore himself has stated that Moore’s Law, long central to the rhetoric of technological triumphalism, no longer applies. The vagaries of the collective imagination are not one of the things that can be reliably predicted about the future, but the giddy claims about December 21, 2012 have me worried. There’s good reason to think that in the year to come we’ll be facing very hard times—not, please note, the imaginary cataclysms of apocalyptic rhetoric, but the sort of slow, plodding, frustratingly mundane hard times our grandparents or great-grandparents faced during the Great Depression before this one—and in such times the glittering promises of apocalyptic fantasy can be hard to resist.

It’s important, though, that at least some of us resist those promises. The grand narratives we’re discussing have another thing in common—they always fail sooner or later—but the narratives of apocalypse by and large fail sooner, more completely, and with more drastic consequences, than most others. The research for my most recent book, Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus, And The Rapture Is Wrong was among other things a first-class education in the pointlessness of apocalyptic prophecy. There’s nothing in today’s advance press for December 21, 2012 that doesn’t have precise equivalents in a thousand similar prophecies for a thousand similar dates when nothing happened. One thing this implies, of course, is that there’s precisely no reason to take this prophecy any more seriously.

As I’ve tried to suggest here more than once, on the other hand, there’s a lot that can be done and indeed has to be done to help individuals, families, and communities deal with the prosaic but potent mix of difficulties our society’s misguided choices have brewed up for us. Sitting on our backsides waiting for the space brothers or the Rapture to solve our problems is no more helpful than sitting our our backsides waiting for progress or the free market or algal biodiesel farms to solve our problems. These two ends of the spectrum are twins—think of them as the Tweedledoom and Tweedledee of the imaginary Wonderland that dominates so much collective thinking these days—and getting past them, it seems to me, is an essential step on the way to less futile responses to a challenging future.

Over the next year, as a result, I plan on celebrating Nothing Happened Day in advance with a new weekly feature: the End of the World of the Week Club. Every week, after the usual (or unusual) essay, I’ll be posting a brief discussion of one of the many apocalypses that slipped past its pull date. It should be entertaining and, just possibly, enlightening. If it manages to help at least a few people step outside the hall of mirrors constructed by all those grand narratives that celebrate our supposedly special status, and begin to notice what the world is like when we stop treating ourselves as the center of attention for the entire cosmos, it may even do some good.

Two notes before we get there. First, I’m pleased to report that I was able to talk Viva Editions, the publisher of Apocalypse Not, into offering a winter solstice present to readers of The Archdruid Report. (Yes, one of the benefits of Druidry is that you get your holiday presents a few days early.) From now until January 1, if you go to the Viva Editions website, buy a copy of Apocalypse Not, and type the code APOCNOT25 on the order form where it asks for coupon codes and the like, you’ll get a 25% discount off the cover price. A happy solstice, or whatever else you celebrate at this time of year, to all!

Second, I’m equally pleased to report that Valerie Green and DanceEntropy will be performing Rise and Fall, a work inspired by my book The Long Descent, as part of their show Eternal Return at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City, January 20, 21, and 22—details and tickets are here. If you’re located anywhere near New York, or will be there in late January, check it out.


End of the World of the Week #1

Chicago, December 20, 1954. A circle of typical American suburbanites gathers in a typical backyard on a typical Midwestern winter evening. As evening deepens, they frantically get rid of every scrap of metal on them, down to the eyelets on their shoes. For the last few months they’ve gathered around a housewife turned channeler, Dorothy Martin, who believes she is in contact with intelligent beings from a distant planet, and has been told that a cataclysmic flood will sweep over North America the next day and destroy everything in its path. Martin and her followers have been promised that they will be lifted to safety aboard a flying saucer that night; the prohibition against metal has something, though no one knows quite what, to do with the alien technologies that they believe will save their lives.

The saucer didn’t show, of course, and neither did the flood. The group scattered over the weeks that followed; Martin left Chicago in time to miss a psych evaluation that probably would have landed her in an institution, took the new name of Sister Thedra, and spent the rest of her life preaching the alien gospel to a mostly uninterested world. The entire affair would have passed all but unnoticed, except that a handful of the group’s members were ringers—graduate students from the University of Minnesota who joined the little cult as part of a study. When Prophecy Fails, the book that came out of that study, has become a classic of American sociological literature, and remains well worth reading today—not least because a great deal of the belief system that’s clustered around the supposed end of the Mayan calendar in 2012 comes from sources not noticeably different from the ones that sent Dorothy Martin on her long strange trip.
—story from Apocalypse Not