Terms of Surrender

Today’s debates over hydrofracturing (“fracking”) oil-bearing shales, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, have dimensions that go well beyond the world of ritual theater discussed there. To begin with, of course, a great deal of money is being made off the current fracking boom by assorted Wall Street office fauna, and their efforts to keep the gravy train rolling for their benefit doubtless have quite a bit to do with the remarkable disregard for mere geological reality to be found in so much pro-fracking propaganda these days.

That sort of strained relationship with fact is a sufficiently standard feature of speculative bubbles that it ought to be high up there on the checklist of any connoisseur of financial lunacy. Those of my readers who recall the details of the late housing bubble will doubtless think of the enthusiasm shown then for what were called NINJA loans—that is, loans given to borrowers who had no income and no jobs or assets, but who would one and all, so bankers insisted with straight faces, pay back those loans religiously out of the money they were sure to make flipping properties. The same logic doubtless governs the equally earnest insistence that the ferocious depletion rates that afflict fracked wells simply don’t matter, that kerogen shales like the Green River formation that have resisted every previous attempt to get oil out of them have suddenly transformed themselves into nice extractable oil shales for our benefit, and that the results of wells drilled in the best possible “sweet spots” in each formation must inevitably be repeated by every available wellsite in the region.

Here, as with the countless other examples that might be put on display by some Dickensian Spirit of Speculative Bubbles Past, the understandable desire to make a fast buck off other people’s cluelessness might seem to offer an adequate explanation for the bumper crop of fatuous twaddle that’s being pushed by the pundits and splashed around so freely by the media these days. Still, I’ve come to think that there’s more going on here than the passion for emptying the pockets of chumps that sets the cold sick heart of Wall Street throbbing, and indeed that there’s even more at work than our culture’s touching habit, discussed over the last two weeks, of reenacting the traditional morality plays of the civil religion of progress in order to console the faithful in difficult times.

Plunge into the heart of the fracking storm, rather, and you’ll find yourself face to face with a foredoomed attempt to maintain one of the core beliefs of the civil religion of progress in the teeth of all the evidence. The stakes here go far beyond making a bunch of financiers their umpteenth million, or providing believers in the myth of progress with a familiar ritual drama to bolster their faith; they cut straight to the heart of that faith, and thus to some of the most fundamental presuppositions that are  guiding today’s industrial societies along their road to history’s scrapheap.

Since the days of Sir Francis Bacon, whose writings served as the first draft of the modern mythology of progress, one of the central themes of that mythology has been the conquest of Nature by humanity—or rather, in the more revealing language of an earlier day, by Man. You aren’t Man, in case you were wondering, and neither am I; neither is Sir Francis Bacon, for that matter, nor is anyone else who’s ever lived or will ever live.  This person called Man, rather, is a mythical hero who gives the civil religion of progress its central figure.  Just as devout Christians participate vicariously in the life of Christ through the celebration of the sacraments and the seasons of the liturgical year, believers in progress are supposed to participate vicariously in Man’s heroic journey from the caves to the stars by purchasing hot new products, and oohing and aahing appreciatively whenever the latest shiny technological trinket is unveiled by Man’s lab-coated priesthood.

Man’s destiny is to conquer Nature. That’s his one and only job, according to the myth, and when Man’s not doing that, he’s not doing anything worthwhile at all. Read any of the standard histories of Man written by true believers in the civil religion of progress, and you’ll see that societies and eras that devoted their energies to art, music, religion, literature, or anything else you care to name other than extending Man’s dominion over Nature are dismissed as irrelevant to Man’s history, when they’re not critiqued outright for falling down on the job.

You may be thinking by this point, dear reader, that a belief system that likes to portray humanity as a tyrant and conqueror rightfully entitled to view the entire cosmos as its own private lebensraum may not be particularly sensible, or for that matter particularly sane. You may well be right, too, but I’d like to focus on a somewhat more restricted point:  according to this way of looking at things, Nature is not supposed to put up more than a pro forma struggle or a passive resistance.  Above all, once any part of Nature is conquered, it’s supposed to stay conquered—and of course that’s where the trouble creeps in, because a great many of the things we habitually lump together as Nature are refusing to go along with the script.

Examples come to mind by the dozens, but one of the most significant and frightening just now is the collapse of the most important health revolution of modern times, the conquest (that word again) of bacterial disease by antibiotics. I’m not sure how many of my readers realize what an immense change in human life followed Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery that a substance excreted by bread mold killed most bacteria without harming human cells. A century ago, dysentery and bacterial pneumonia were leading causes of death in most industrial countries, killing far more people than heart disease or cancer, and the odds of living from birth to age five had an uncomfortable resemblance to a throw of the dice even in wealthy countries. Penicillin and the antibiotics that followed it changed that decisively, enabling doctors to stop bacterial diseases in their tracks. It’s because of antibiotics that I’m here to write this blog; the scarlet fever that had me flat on my back for weeks when I was seven years old would almost certainly have killed me if antibiotics hadn’t been available.

Outside the public health and infectious disease fields, most people remain serenely convinced that the relative freedom from bacterial disease that’s characterized the recent past in the industrial world is destined to remain fixed in place for the rest of time. Within those fields, by contrast, that comfortable conviction finds few takers. Penicillin, the antibiotic that saved my life in 1969, won’t even slow down most microbes now. Diseases that used to yield readily to an injection or two now have to be treated with complex cocktails of increasingly toxic antibiotics, and every year more pathogens turn up that are resistant to some, most, or all available antibiotics.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, at least for those who want to play the blame game. It’s been common since the 1950s for physicians to prescribe antibiotics for conditions antibiotic therapy can’t treat—for example, the common cold. It’s been equally common since the 1950s for livestock farms to give their animals daily doses of antibiotics, since (for complex biochemical reasons) this causes the animals to gain weight more quickly, and thus be worth more money at slaughtering time. Both these bad habits helped give bacteria the widest possible range of opportunities to develop resistance. Still, these and other contributing factors simply help feed the main issue, which is that bacterial evolution didn’t come to a sudden stop when Fleming started paying attention to bread mold.

I’ve commented several times in this blog that understanding evolution is crucial for making sense of the predicament of the industrial world, and the approaching end of the antibiotic era offers a solid example of the reasons why.  Evolution through natural selection is the process by which living things adapt themselves to environmental changes; it works through individual organisms, but its effects are not limited to the individual scale. In the case of the spread of antibiotic resistance among microbes, there are at least three patterns at work. First, microbes are being selected for their resistance to individual antibiotics. Second, as new antibiotics are brought out to replace old ones, microbes are being selected for their ability to develop resistance to one antibiotic after another as quickly as possible. Finally, the pressure exerted on the entire microbial biosphere by the pervasive presence of antibiotics in the modern environment is giving a huge selective advantage to species that have the ability to exchange genes for resistance with other species.

The results are being documented in increasingly worried articles in public health journals. A large and growing number of pathogenic microbes these days are already resistant to the antibiotics that used to treat them; new antibiotics brought onto the market start running into problems with resistant bacteria in a fraction of the time that was once necessary for resistance to emerge; and the transfer of antibiotic resistance from one species to another is becoming an increasingly troubling problem. The possibility of a return to pre-1928 conditions, when a simple bacterial infection could readily turn into a death sentence and most families buried at least one child before the age of five, is seeing serious discussion in the professional literature.

As already mentioned, though, such worries are falling on deaf ears outside the public health and infectious-disease fields. There’s a mordant irony in the reason why, though I suspect it’s not often relished outside of the peak oil scene and a few other places where the same logic appears. Faced with the prospect of the end of the antibiotic era and the return of bacterial illnesses as major threats to public health, most  politicians, like the people they’re supposed to serve, respond with an overfamiliar sentence:  “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something.”  The increasingly frantic efforts of researchers to find new antibiotics and stay ahead of the remorselessly rising tide of microbial resistance get no more attention than the equally frantic efforts, say, of drilling companies to find petroleum deposits to make up for the increasingly rapid depletion of existing oil fields.

In both cases, and in any number of others, the myth of progress is the most important barrier in the way of a meaningful response to our predicament.  According to the myth, we can’t go backwards to any condition encountered in the past; what Man conquers is supposed to stay conquered, so he can continue his ever-victorious journey from the caves to the stars. It’s unthinkable, in terms of the myth, that the supposed conquest of some part of nature—say, bacterial disease—might represent nothing more than a temporary advantage that the pressures of natural selection will soon erase. Thus when this latter turns out to be the case, those believers in the religion of progress who aren’t forced to confront such awkward realities in their work or their daily lives simply repeat the sacred words  “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something,” to invoke the blessing of the great god Progress on His only begotten son, Man, and then proceed to act as though nothing could possibly go wrong.

The difficulty, of course, is that an embarrassingly large portion of the territory supposedly conquered by Man over the last three centuries is showing an awkward propensity to ignore Man’s overlordship and do what it wants instead. The much-ballyhooed Green Revolution of the mid-20th century is another case in point. The barrage of fertilizers and poisons the proponents of that movement turned on agriculture won a temporary advantage over the hard subsistence limits of earlier eras, but it was only temporary. The reckless use of artificial fertilizers turned out to have drastic downsides, while the poisons drove insects and weeds into exactly the same frenzy of intensive natural selection that antibiotics brought to the microbial world. Insects and weeds don’t reproduce as quickly or swap genetic material with the same orgiastic abandon as microbes, but the equivalent changes are happening at a slightly slower pace; one of the dirty secrets of conventional agriculture is that herbicide resistance among weeds and pesticide resistance among insects and other agricultural pests are spreading rapidly, erasing the short-term gains of the Green Revolution while leaving the long-term costs in lost topsoil and poisoned water tables to be paid by generations to come.

Farmers faced by resistant weeds and pests, like physicians faced by resistant microbes, are turning to increasingly desperate measures to get the same results that their equivalents got with much less trouble. That’s exactly the situation that’s driving the current fracking boom and bubble, too. Back in the glory days of petroleum exploration and discovery, drillers could punch a well a few hundred feet into the ground and hit oil; now it takes hugely expensive deepwater drilling, tar sands extraction, or hydrofracturing of shale and other “tight oil” deposits to keep the liquid fuel flowing, and the costs keep rising year after year.

The implication that has to be faced is that the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution. Believers in the religion of progress like to think that Man conquered distance and made the world smaller by inventing internal combustion engines, aircraft, and an assortment of other ways to burn plenty of petroleum products. What actually happened, though, was that drilling rigs and a few other technologies gave our species a temporary boost of cheap liquid fuel to play with, and we proceeded to waste most of it on the assumption that Nature’s energy resources had been conquered and could be expected to fork over another cheap abundant energy source as soon as we wanted one.

That follows logically from the myth, but it doesn’t follow in reality. Instead, the temporary advantage our species gained by exploiting all that cheap, easily accessible petroleum is being brought to an end by factors even more implacable than the constant pressure of natural selection on niche boundaries: the simple facts that a finite planet by definition only contains a finite amount of any given resource, and that deposits of every resource are distributed according to the power law—the rule, consistently true across an impressive range of fields, that larger deposits are much less common than smaller ones. Those factors are not going away; the fact that Wall Street office fauna are shoveling smoke about, ahem, “limitless amounts of oil and natural gas” from fracked wells, may make them their umpteenth million and keep the clueless neatly sedated for a few more years, but it’s not going to do a thing to change the hard facts of the predicament that’s closing around us all.

Seen in this light, the mythology of Man’s conquest of Nature bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain other campaign of conquest launched to the sound of blaring brass bands and overconfident pronouncements in the not too distant past.  Like German civilians tuning in to news broadcasts from Berlin in the heady summer of 1941, people in the world’s industrial nations have taken in any number of proclamations about Man’s latest glorious victories in the war against Nature.  The conquest of disease, the conquest of hunger, the conquest of air and space and distance itself—is there any scientific or technological success, however temporary, that hasn’t been praised in those fatuous terms?—each had its fifteen minutes of fame as Man’s heroic legions of science and progress pursued their allegedly invincible Drang nach Sternen.

Some time ago, though, the content of the propaganda broadcasts began to change, though their tone did not. Nuclear fusion seems to have played much the same role in Man’s conquest of Nature that Moscow played in that other campaign, the goal that seemed almost in reach time and again, but never quite fell into the hands so greedily outstretched for it.  Other campaigns meant to push the frontiers of Man’s dominion further out into Nature’s unconquered territory have had equally mixed luck, and even the immense effort that put an American flag on the Moon turned out to have no more influence on the course of events than the rather less challenging campaign by an SS mountain battalion that put a  different flag on the summit of the highest mountain in the Caucasus range.

It’s what followed that relative stalemate, though, that’s of importance here. Beginning in 1943, the German civilians tuning in to those radio broadcasts from Berlin had to deal with an increasing burden of cognitive dissonance, as the heroic battles and triumphant victories breathlessly announced by Goebbels’ acolytes stopped moving eastwards on the map and started shifting back toward the west. The forces that had been sweeping everything before them in the suburbs of Moscow were now doing the same thing in the vicinity of Smolensk, with no explanation of the change.  Nor was there any clearer explanation to be had as Germany’s glorious victories shifted steadily westwards, past Minsk and Warsaw and Breslau, until nervous listeners in the Berlin suburbs, just before the broadcasts stopped for good, could hear the sound of artillery rattling their own windows.
The question that all would-be conquerors need to ask themselves, in other words, is what will happen if their planned campaign of conquest fails. None of the 17th-century thinkers who played a role in launching humanity on its assault on Nature seems to have posed that question, even in private, much less tried to think through the answers. I’d encourage my readers to have this in mind when the latest reports of glorious victories place these latter more and more often in territory that was supposedly conquered in earlier campaigns. I’d also encourage them, to push the metaphor a step further, to think about what terms of surrender might be demanded of us when Man’s grand attempt to conquer Nature ends in defeat—something we’ll discuss further next week.