A Pathless Land

The discussion of revitalization movements and fantasies of collective redemption over the last two weeks here on The Archdruid Report had an interesting though by no means unexpected result. Several people asked me whether I thought it might be possible to harness some movement of the same broad sort to get people to do the things they need to do to get ready for peak oil.

This is hardly a new idea, of course. Back in the late 1990s, when the first peak oil email lists were taking shape, the idea of organizing a peak oil movement on the large scale came up for discussion now and again, and some attempts were made, though none of them managed to find much of an audience. More recently, toward the middle of the last decade, the Post Carbon Institute launched a network of relocalization groups, which flourished for a while and then suddenly folded for reasons I’ve never seen discussed. Over the last few years, in its turn, the Transition Town movement has made its own transition from a college project to an international network helping communities put together plans to cope with a future of energy scarcity and strict carbon-footprint limits.

It’s fair to say that none of these was or is a mass movement of the kind I was discussing; the earlier examples belong on the same list of would-be mass movements that never got off the ground as, say, Technocracy, while the last is still very much in the early phases of its trajectory, early enough that its final destination is anybody’s guess. Still, it’s easy to see why the idea of a grand collective movement in the direction of sustainability is so appealing to so many people.

To begin with, the failure of the established order of industrial society, and of the political classes who manage it, is becoming hard to ignore. Consider the way that the world’s political leaders have reacted to the implosion of the global economy, or the way that the US government and BP management have reacted to the ongoing death by oil of the Gulf of Mexico: in each case, it’s a broken-record sequence of understating the problem, trying to manage appearances, getting caught flatfooted by events, and struggling to load the blame for yet another round of failures onto anybody within reach. Rinse and repeat a few times, and even the most diehard supporters of the status quo start wishing that somebody, somewhere, would stand up and demonstrate some actual leadership.

At the same time, for those of us who have been trying to get the message of peak oil out for the last decade or more, the spreading cracks in the great wall of denial can give rise to a certain intoxication. When pundits insist that there’s enough oil in current reserves to last 800 years , or that oil discoveries have more than kept pace with extraction rates all along, or that the only limits to the amount of oil we can get out of the earth are economic – all of which statements have appeared in the media in recent weeks, and all of which can easily be disproved by readily available figures or, in the last case, by plain common sense – it’s hard to miss the desperation in their words. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” Gandhi said; at this point they’re fighting, and some of the peak oil community are starting to think about what victory might look like.

That’s a fair question. What would victory look like? Imagine for a moment that the arrival of permanently scarce energy became as much a part of the conventional wisdom in the decades ahead of us as it became, however briefly, in the 1970s. It would be easy enough to blow the dust off the plans and dreams of that latter decade, and there’s arguably a real point to doing that, but the world has changed; the reserves of fossil fuels that planners in the Seventies counted on to cushion the descent into a low-energy future have been severely depleted in the years since, and there are twice as many people on this small and crowded planet as there were back then. By any realistic measure, we’re in a heap of trouble, and the hope that a mass movement might yield enough enthusiasm and commitment to deal with that heap is an easy one to understand.

Still, that hope isn’t one I share. Quite the contrary, I’ve come to think that the rise of a mass movement centered on peak oil – whether or not it turns into the sort of revitalization movement discussed in the last two posts – might well put paid to any hope of avoiding a profoundly unwelcome future. The best way to explain that sense is an indirect one, and so I trust my readers will have patience with a divagation in the direction of Philadelphia.

I was there a little while back, speaking at a conference at a posh downtown hotel. I’ll spare you the details; it was one of those gigs that peak oil speakers dread, the sort of event where you’ve got twelve minutes in a panel discussion to explain why the future everyone has taken for granted isn’t going to happen, and why whatever plans they happen to be promoting need to make room for economic and social collapse, mass impoverishment, and the whole cheerful landscape of a deindustrializing world. Well before your twelve minutes are up, it’s clear that you might as well have spent the time reciting texts from the Iguvine Tablets in the original Umbrian; there’s a little polite applause, the audience asks a few polite questions, a few people come up to thank you for your speech, and none of the attendees mentions peak oil in your hearing again.

Afterwards, I ducked out of the hotel and walked the streets of downtown Philly, partly to find some comfortable dive for dinner, but mostly to shake off the sense of intellectual mummification that events like that always leave behind. A session of t’ai chi on the grass in Rittenhouse Square startled the pigeons and a couple of transients but left me feeling a good deal less numbed, and I did indeed find a comfortable dive (and had a good dinner there a bit later), but what turned the day around was a couple of lines written in fading gold lettering on a window in an otherwise undistinguished block of shops and offices, announcing to the world the Philadelphia branch of the United Lodge of Theosophists.

I suspect this phrase will mean nothing to most of my readers. The original Theosophical Society (TS) was founded back in 1875 in New York City by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian emigré, and a small circle of American mystics and occultists. Its purpose was to provide an alternative to the dogmatic religion and equally dogmatic scientific materialism of the day, and it offered public lectures and instruction at a time when most other esoteric spiritual groups kept their teachings hidden away behind tightly locked lodge doors. Other groups had tried to do the same thing in various ways for decades beforehand, but for some reason Theosophy caught on where these others failed, and found itself with local groups and a mass following on four continents.

Blavatsky, who by this time was the unquestioned leader of the movement, then found herself facing the same predicament that confronts every spiritual movement that attracts a large following Of those who joined the Society, only a small percentage were actually interested in studying the philosophy, practicing the spiritual practices, and making use of the rest of what it had to teach; the majority wanted to participate in it for what amounted to social reasons. She responded by reorganizing the TS, creating an Esoteric Section for those willing to commit to daily meditation and study, and using the rest of the Society as an outer court where those interested solely in the social aspects of a mass movement could take part and contribute whatever they could.

That structure stayed in place until Blavatsky died in 1891. The Society broke apart in the years that followed; most of the Theosophical groups that emerged from the confusion kept the same policy, but he largest of the fragments did not. Headed by suffragist and Fabian socialist Annie Besant, this branch – called the Adyar TS, after the location of its headquarters – pursued a mass following, and turned into a full-blown revitalization movement when Besant decided that a boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti, the son of a Hindu servant at the Adyar headquarters, was the next World Teacher, the successor of Buddha and Christ, who would lead the world to salvation under the banner of Theosophy.

In the short term, it was a hugely popular move; the claim that the Adyar TS had a messiah on hand who would shortly launch his career of redemption proved to be a membership magnet of immense power. Chapters of the Order of the Star in the West, an organization launched in 1911 to promote Krishnamurti, sprang up like mushrooms across much of the world. After the First World War, the implosion of Europe’s global ascendancy and the betrayal of wartime promises made the dream of a redeemer profoundly appealing. Meanwhile Krishnamurti grew to manhood, trained and prompted for the role he was expected to play. Finally, in 1929, a huge rally of the Order was summoned to be present as Krishnamurti formally began his career as World Teacher.

I sometimes wonder what must have gone through his mind as he mounted the podium that day and looked down at the ocean of upturned faces gazing at him in adoration. My readers might wish to imagine themselves in the same position. There you are, with tens of thousands of people eagerly awaiting your least word, and hundreds of thousands more around the world longing to receive the message you are about to give them. Will you call them to manifest your highest ideals, will you tell them to fulfill your basest desires, or will it be, as it usually is, a bit of both?

It’s an intoxicating image, but there’s another side to it. Not one of those tens of thousands of people has to be there; not one of the hundreds of thousands is required to listen. They are there for reasons of their own, reasons that mingle high ideals and base desires in the usual human proportions, and if the ideals or the desires you call on them to pursue are far enough from theirs that they see no way of fulfilling their own agendas by helping yours, they will turn away and go looking for another movement that shows more promise of giving them what they want. That’s the trap that waits for every mass movement that tries to change society, because the ideals and desires of the majority define the structure of society as it is; a would-be mass movement that pursues a different path will reliably find itself failing to attract members, while a mass movement that reshapes its message to attract a large audience will inevitably turn into a mechanism for replicating the existing order of things.

Whether this is what went through Krishnamurti’s mind is anyone’s guess, as he refused to talk about the experience later. Still, by the time he descended from the podium, the elaborate fantasy Besant and her colleagues had built around him, and the revitalization movement that had grown up around that, were blown to smithereens. Truth, he told his listeners, is a pathless land; no messiah can take you there, or lift the burden of thinking for yourself off your shoulders. In front of them all, he disavowed his role as World Teacher and dissolved the Order of the Star in the West. The mass movement popped like a bubble, and all the Theosophical organizations suffered huge drops in membership; Besant’s career was effectively over, though she lingered on for a few more years. Ironically, Krishnamurti went on to a long career as a spiritual teacher, but he steadfastly refused to allow any organization to form around him, and I don’t know of anybody who claims that he really was the World Teacher.

The peak oil scene is a long way from finding its Krishnamurti, or even its Annie Besant. Still, the future after peak oil is also a pathless land, and as the reality of limits to growth goes mainstream and peak oil speakers find audiences more responsive than the one I faced in Philadelphia, the trap that waits for all mass movements waits for it as well. A survey just splashed over the American media points up the difficulty: a large majority of Americans surveyed agreed that the energy situation was a crisis and something needs to be done, but very few of them were willing to accept a solution that involved gasoline prices going up. The temptation to promise people that they can have a green energy future and still fill their tanks for less than $3 a gallon will be immense; those groups that do this can count on being flooded with recruits, while those that admit that in any realistic green energy future, most Americans will no longer have cars at all, will find themselves in the same sort of situation I encountered at the conference in Philadelphia, trying to talk to people for whom the future might as well be written in Umbrian.

Now it’s easy to insist that getting people in the door is the important thing, and once they’re in the movement they can be led gradually to more accurate views. The history of mass movements shows otherwise with depressing consistency. The leaders who imagine themselves drawing the masses step by step to some better set of beliefs and behaviors generally find out the hard way, as their predecessors did, that they are the ones who will be drawn step by step into whatever set of beliefs and behaviors will maximize the size and influence of the movement they head – which amounts to whatever set of beliefs and behaviors the masses want them to have. We’ve already seen some parts of the peak oil scene moving in this direction; the insistence that an optimism that will attract crowds is more important than a realism that can guide a meaningful response comes to mind in this context.

The pursuit of a mass movement is not the only option we’ve got, fortunately, and other options – one of which I plan on exploring in detail in next week’s post, and in the weeks to come – offer a great deal more potential for viable change. Still, one of the simplest was on display in the quiet little library and meeting room of the Philadelphia United Lodge of Theosophists. The ULT stayed aloof from Annie Besant’s shenanigans, and has quietly continued to follow the original plan of the movement, offering lectures and opportunities for study to those who are willing to learn. I went there after dinner and took in a talk and a lively discussion about certain points of Theosophical teaching, and had a fine time. Druidry and Theosophy are by no means the same thing, but there’s enough common ground to make for congenial conversation, and you don’t come through the kind of traditional occult training I had back in my misspent youth without knowing your way around Theosophical ideas. When I walked back to the hotel that evening, the day felt a lot less like a waste.

Still, the moment that remains with me happened before the meeting, while I was chatting with some of the Theosophists. One elderly African-American man mentioned that a few years back, considering the state of the world, he and his wife had decided to give up their car. Of course, he admitted, it involved some changes, but Philly public transit got them where they needed to go, and he found that doing without the costs of car ownership left him with so much money left over at the end of the month that at first he kept checking to make sure he’d paid all his bills.

I thought about him as I took the train home the next day, and I also thought about the Amish family seated behind me on the train, father and the boys in white shirts and black hats, mother and the girls in bonnets and ankle-length dresses, talking quietly to each other in the German dialect everyone around here calls Pennsylvania Dutch. The lesson I took from them is that it’s the choices of individuals that ultimately make any difference that’s going to be made. It’s tempting to think that the social pressure of a mass movement can lead people to make changes they aren’t willing to make on their own, but in practice, that’s not the way it works; instead, what generally happens is that sooner or later, those who hoped to lead the world to some shining future en masse find themselves sitting in the smoking crater left by the total implosion of their dreams, wondering what happened. It would be unfortunate, to use no stronger word, to have that sort of fiasco replicated in the peak oil movement.