Into an Unknown Country (2013)

Was it just my imagination, or was the New Year’s celebration just past even more halfhearted than those of the last few years? My wife and I welcomed 2013 with a toast, and breakfasted the next morning on the traditional good-luck foods—rice and beans, corn bread, greens and bacon—that I learned to enjoy back when I was studying old-fashioned Southern folk magic. Outside our little house, though, the midnight air seemed remarkably quiet; the whoops, horns, and firecrackers of New Years past were notable mostly by their absence, and the next day’s hush seemed less a matter of hangovers than a not unreasonable dread of what 2013 might have in store for us all.

No doubt some of that was a function of the media panic about the so-called Fiscal Cliff. The New Yorker scored a palpable hit by headlining a piece on the subject "Washington Celebrates Solving Totally Unnecessary Crisis They Created," but there’s more to it than that. What, after all, was this "fiscal cliff"? A measure that would have repealed some of the tax breaks and hikes in Federal spending put in place since 2000, and thus reduced the annual Federal deficit by a modest amount.  All that yelling, in other words, was provoked by the possibility that the US government might have to take a few steps in the direction of living within its means.  If the frantic struggle to avert that outcome is any measure of the kind of statesmanship we can expect from the White House and Congress in the year to come, it’s no wonder that hiding under the mattress has so much evident appeal just now.

There’s more involved in the evident lack of enthusiasm for the new year, though, than the latest clown acts playing in the three-ring circus that is today’s Washington DC.  A great many of the comforting rationalizations that have played so large a role in justifying a continued reliance on the unsustainable are wearing very thin.  Consider the claims, retailed by the media at ever-increasing volume these days, that recent upturns in the rate of domestic petroleum production in the US offer a conclusive disproof to the idea of peak oil, and herald the arrival of a new age of cheap abundant fuel.  Courtesy of Jim Kunstler’s latest blog post, I’d like to offer a chart of US petroleum production, from 1920 to now, that puts those claims in perspective.  
See the tiny little uptick in production over there on the far right?  That’s the allegedly immense rise in petroleum production that drives all the rhetoric.  If that blip doesn’t look like a worldchanging event to you, dear reader, you’re getting the message. It isn’t a worldchanging event; it’s the predictable and, by the way, repeatedly predicted result of the rise in oil prices from around $30 a barrel to between three and four times that, following the 2008 spike and crash.  Triple or quadruple the price of any other commodity, and sources of that commodity that weren’t economically feasible to produce at the lower price will suddenly become paying propositions, too.  (Yes, that’s spelled "Bakken shale" in the present tense.) If the price of oil were to triple or quadruple again over the next few years, we’ll probably see another increase on the same very modest scale, too.  That increase still won’t be a worldchanging event, though the economic impact of another round of price increases on that scale might be.

More generally, we’ve got a real shortage of worldchanging events just now.  There are good reasons for that, just as there are equally—well, equally strong, if not equally good—reasons why so many people are pinning all their hopes on a worldchanging event of one kind or another.  Therapists like to point out that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten, and of late it’s become a truism (though it’s also a truth) that doing the same thing and expecting to get different results is a good working definition of insanity.  The attempt to find some way around that harsh but inescapable logic is the force that drove the prophetic hysteria about 2012, and drives end-of-the-world delusions more generally:  if the prospect of changing the way you live terrifies you, but the thought of facing the consequences of the way you live terrifies you just as much, daydreaming that some outside force will come along and change everything for you can be a convenient way to avoid having to think about the future you’re making for yourself.

With that in mind, and with an eye toward the year ahead of us, I’d like to attend to three New Year customs that haven’t gotten as much attention here on The Archdruid Report as they probably should.  First, I’d like to go over my predictions for the year just finished, and see how well they did; second, I’d like to offer up some predictions for the year to come; and third, I’d like to make some suggestions for what my readers might consider doing about it all.

My 2012 predictions appeared in the first January post here last year.  Here they are:

"I’d like to suggest that when we take a backwards look in the early days of 2013, we will most likely see that that’s what happened in 2012, too: a slow worsening across a wide range of trends, punctuated by localized crises and regional disasters. I’d like to predict, in fact, that when we take that backward look, the US dollar and the Euro will both still exist and be accepted as legal tender, though the Eurozone may have shed a couple of countries who probably shouldn’t have joined it in the first place; that stock markets around the world will have had another volatile year, but will still be trading.  Here in the US, whoever is unlucky enough to win the 2012 presidential election will be in the middle of an ordinary transition to a new term of office; the new Congress will be gearing up for another two years of partisan gridlock; gas stations will still have gas for sale and grocery stores will be stocked with groceries; and most Americans will be making the annual transition between coping with their New Year’s hangovers and failing to live up to their New Year’s resolutions, just as though it was any other year.

"Official US statistics will no doubt insist that the unemployment rate has gone down...but the number of people out of work in the United States will likely set another all-time record; the number of people in severe economic trouble will have gone up another good-sized notch, and public health clinics will probably be seeing the first wave of malnutrition-caused illness in children.  If you happen to have spent the year in one of the areas unfortunate enough to get hit by the hard edge of the increasingly unstable weather, you may have had to spend a week or two in an emergency shelter while the flood waters receded or the wreckage got hauled away, and you might even notice that less and less gets rebuilt every year.

"Unless that happens, though, or unless you happen to pay close attention to the things that don’t usually make the evening news, you may well look back in the first days of 2013 and think that business as usual is still ongoing. You’d be right, too, so long as you recognize that there’s been a stealthy change in what business as usual now means.  Until the peak of world conventional petroleum production arrived in 2005, by and large, business as usual meant the continuation of economic growth. Since then, by and large, it has meant the continuation of economic decline."

No countries left the Eurozone in 2012, and if malnutrition-caused illness in children has had a notable uptick in America, I haven’t yet heard of it.  Other than that, I think it’s fair to say that I called it.  I’d like to put on my sorcerer’s cap, furthermore, and gaze a little deeper into the mists of futurity; I thus predict that just as 2012 looked like a remake of 2011 a little further down the curve of decline, 2013 will look a good deal like 2012, but with further worsening along the same broad array of trends and yet another round of local crises and regional disasters. The number of billion-dollar weather disasters will tick up further, as will the number of Americans who have no job—though, to be sure, the official unemployment rate and other economic statistics will be gimmicked then as now.  The US dollar, the Euro, and the world’s stock markets will still be in business at year’s end, and there will still be gas for sale in gas stations, groceries for sale in grocery stores, and more people interested in the Super Bowl than in global warming or peak oil, as 2013 gives way to 2014.

As the year unfolds, I’d encourage my readers to watch the fracking bubble. Yes, it’s a speculative bubble of the classic sort, one that has soaked up a vast amount of investment money over the last few years, and the glorious future of American energy independence being touted by the media has the same function, and the same relationship to reality, as the glorious future of endlessly rising house prices that got waved around with equal abandon in 2006 and 2007. I don’t expect the bubble to pop this year—my best guess at this point is that that’ll happen in 2014—but it’s already losing air as the ferocious decline rates experienced by fracked oil and gas wells gnaw the bottom out of the fantasy.  Expect the new year to bring more strident claims of the imminent arrival of a shiny new future of energy abundance, coupled with a steady drumbeat of bad financial news suggesting, in essence, that the major players in that end of the oil and gas industry are well and truly fracked.

I’d also encourage my readers to watch the climate.  The tendency to focus on predicted apocalypses to come while ignoring the reality of ongoing collapse in the present is as evident here as in every other corner of contemporary culture; whether or not the planet gets fried to a crackly crunch by some more or less distant future date, it’s irrefutable that the cost of weather-related disasters across the world has been climbing year over year for decades, and this is placing an increasingly harsh burden on local and regional economies here in the US and elsewhere.  It’s indicative that many coastal towns in Louisiana and Mississippi that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina have never been rebuilt, and it’s probably a safe bet that a similar fate waits for a fair number of the towns and poorer neighborhoods hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy.  As global warming pumps more heat into the heat engine we call Earth’s climate, the inevitable result is more extreme weather—drier droughts, fiercer storms, more serious floods, and so on down a litany that’s become uncomfortably familiar in recent years. 

Most of the infrastructure of industrial society was built during the period of abnormally good weather we call the twentieth century.  A fair amount of it, as New York subway riders have had reason to learn, is poorly designed to handle extreme weather, and if those extremes become normal, the economics of maintaining such complex systems as the New York subways in the teeth of repeated flooding start to look very dubious indeed.  I don’t expect to see significant movements out of vulnerable coastal areas quite yet, but if 2011’s Hurricane Irene and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy turn out to have a bouncing baby sibling who decides to pay a visit to the Big Apple in 2013, 2014 might see the first businesses relocating further inland, perhaps to the old mill towns of the southern Hudson valley and the eastern end of Pennsylvania, perhaps further still.

That’s speculative. What isn’t speculative is that all the trends that have been driving the industrial world down the arc of the Long Descent are still in play, and so are all the parallel trends that are pushing America’s global empire along its own trajectory toward history’s dustbin  Those things haven’t changed; even if anything could be done about them, which is far from certain, nothing is being done about them; indeed, outside of a handful of us on the fringes of contemporary culture, nobody is even talking about the possibility that something might need to be done about them.  That being the case, it’s a safe bet that the trends I’ve sketched out will continue unhindered, and give us another year of the ordinary phenomena of slowly accelerating decline and fall.

That, in turn, leads to the question of what my readers might do about it all.

My advice hasn’t changed.  It’s a source of some amusement to me, though, that no matter how clearly I try to communicate that advice, a fair number of people will hear what they want to hear, or perhaps what they expect to hear, rather than what I’m saying.  Over the course of this last week, for example, several people commenting on this post on one of the many other forums where it appears insisted with some heat that I claimed that activism was worthless, while one of the commenters here on The Archdruid Report took me to task for what he thought was a rejection of community in favor of an unworkable go-it-alone approach.

Not so.  What I’m saying is that any meaningful response to the crisis of our time has to begin on the individual level, with changes in our own lives.  To say that it should begin there doesn’t mean that it should end there; what it does mean is that without the foundation of personal change, neither activism nor community building nor anything else is going to do much.  We’ve already seen what happens when climate activists go around insisting that other people ought to decrease their carbon footprint, while refusing to do so themselves, and the results have not exactly been good.  Equally, if none of the members of a community are willing to make the changes necessary to decrease their own dependence on a failing industrial system, just what good is the community as a whole supposed to do?

A great many people like to insist that changing your own life isn’t enough, and then act as though that means that changing your own life isn’t necessary.  Again, not so.  If industrial society as a whole has to stop dumping excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, dear reader, that means among many other things that you, personally, have to stop contributing your share of that excess.  Equally, if industrial society as a whole is running short of fossil fuels, that means among many other things that you, personally, are going to have to get used to living without them.  That being the case, why not start with the part of the problem about which you can actually do something—your own consumption of fossil fuels and your own production of carbon dioxide—and then go from there?

Political activism, community building, and a great many other proposed responses to the crisis of our time are entirely valid and workable approaches if those who pursue them start by making the changes in their own lives they expect other people to make in turn.  Lacking that foundation, they go nowhere. It’s not even worth arguing any more about what happens when people try to get other people to do the things they won’t do themselves; we’ve had decades of that, it hasn’t helped, and it’s high time that the obvious lessons get drawn from that fact.  Once again, if you always do what you’ve always done...

That being said, here are some suggested New Year’s resolutions for those of my readers who are interested in being part of the solution:

1. Caulk, weatherstrip, and insulate the place where you live.  Most Americans can cut between 5% and 25% of their total annual energy use by weatherizing their homes. None of the work is rocket science; your local hardware store can sell you everything you need for a very modest amount of money, and there are plenty of sources in print and online that can teach you everything you need to know.  The sooner you get to work, the sooner you start saving money, and the sooner a good chunk of your share of excess carbon dioxide stops messing with the atmosphere.

2. Make at least one commute or run at least one errand a week on foot, by bicycle, or by public transit.  A great many Americans don’t actually need cars at all.  A good many of those who do, due to a half century of idiotic land use planning, need them a great deal less often than they think.  The best way to learn this is to experience what it’s like to travel by some other means.  It’s long past time to ditch the "yuppie logic" that suggests that it’s a good idea to drive a mile to the health club to get on a treadmill and get the exercise you didn’t get by walking to the health club.  It’s also long past time to ditch the equally false logic that insists that getting there faster is the only thing that matters.

3. If you take a vacation, take the train.  Traveling by train uses a small fraction of the fuel per mile that a plane needs, and the trip is part of the vacation rather than an ordeal to endure between one place and the next. Give it a try.  If you live in the US, you might also consider supporting the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which lobbies for expanded passenger rail service and offers a discount on fares for members.

4. Buy it used. This applies to everything from cars, should you actually need one, to the cheapest of trinkets.  By buying a used product rather than a new one, you save the energy cost of manufacturing the new product, and you also keep things out of the waste stream.  Used computers are particularly worth your while; if you live in a tolerably large urban area in the US, you can often get more computers than you need by letting your circle of friends know that you’ll take used but working devices off their hands for free.  You won’t be able to play the latest computer games on them, sure, but if you’re obsessed with playing the latest computer games, you don’t need a computer; you need a life. Speaking of getting a life...

5. Turn off the boob tube.  Better still, if you can talk the people you live with into it, get rid of the thing altogether.  Commercial television exists to fill your brain with emotionally manipulative imagery that lures you into buying products you wouldn’t otherwise need or want.  Public television?  Replace "products" with "opinions" and you’re not too far off. (Huge rapacious corporations spend millions of dollars to fund public TV programs; I hope none of my readers are naive enough to think that these corporations do this out of some vague sense of moral obligation.)  You don’t need any of that stuff cluttering up your brain.  While you’re at it...

6.  Take up an art, craft, or hobby.  Once you turn off the TV, you’re going to have the one luxury that nobody in a modern consumer society is ever supposed to have:  actual, unstructured free time.  It’s worth luxuriating in that for a bit, but pretty soon you’ll find that you want to do something with that time, and one of the best options is to learn how to do something interesting with your hands.  Three quarters of a century ago, most people had at least one activity that gave them something creative to do in their off hours, and a good many of those activities also produced useful and valuable things.  Unless you’re at least seventy years old or come from a very unusual family, you have no idea how many arts, crafts and hobbies Americans used to pursue, or how little money it takes to get started with most of them.  By the way, if you think you’re too old to take up playing the guitar or doing some other seemingly complicated skill, you’re not.

7. Do without something this year.  This is the scary one for most people in today’s consumer society.  To be able to have something, and choose not to have it, challenges some of the deepest of modern taboos.  Give it a try.  The point isn’t to strike an assumed pose of ecological virtue, by the way, so don’t tell anybody what you’re doing without, or even that you’re doing without something.  Nor is this about "being good" in some socially approved manner, so don’t choose something that you’re supposed to want to do without. Just quietly neglect to make something part of your life, and pay attention to your own emotional reactions.  If you’re like most people in today’s America, you’ll be in for a wild ride, but the destination is worth reaching.

So there you are.  As we head deeper into the unknown country of 2013, have a happy and sustainable new year!

A couple of notes might be worth placing here for fans of my writing.  First of all, my latest peak oil book, Not The Future We Ordered:  The Psychology of Peak Oil and the Myth of Eternal Progress, is available for preorder.  Karnac Press, the publisher, is a specialty press publishing mostly in the field of psychology; the book is primarily intended for psychologists, therapists, and members of the healing professions, who will need to know what they’re dealing with as the psychological impacts of peak oil take their toll, but it may also be of interest to peak oil readers generally. Much of what’s covered in Not The Future We Ordered hasn’t appeared here or in any of my other books, so it may be worth a look.

I’m also pleased to announce that I’ve been offered a position as contributing editor and monthly columnist with (formerly My first column there will be appearing later this month. My working plan at this point is to head deeper into the territory I explored in my book The Wealth of Nature, with an eye toward the practical and personal implications of the end of the age of abundance.  This is a paid gig, and so the meat of my monthly columns will be in the subscribers-only area, but I plan on doing my level best to make sure it’s worth the price of admission. Again, might be worth a look.