The Parting of the Ways

Chalk it up to an adolescence spent reading such cheerful books as The Limits to Growth and The Coming Dark Age, but it takes quite a bit to make me fret about the future. Even now, as industrial civilization begins to sink down the far side of Hubbert’s curve, and facts and figures come rolling in on a daily basis to sketch the predicament of our time in ever more detail, I usually find it easy to nod and make a note and go on with the work at hand, whether that’s bringing in greens and snow peas from the garden or hammering out this week’s Archdruid Report post.

Still, a series of news items over the last week or so have me worried. No, it’s not the latest news about methane plumes in the Arctic Ocean; it’s not the current round of economic idiocy from Europe, where the bizarre conviction that banks ought to be sheltered from the consequences of even their most clueless investment decisions has become the centerpiece of an economic nonpolicy that will likely tip the entire EU into mass bankruptcy; it’s not the death struggle between two failed ideologies that’s frozen Washington DC into utter political paralysis at a time when avoiding hard questions any longer may well put the survival of the nation at risk. No, quite the contrary: it’s the rising chorus of voices, from all across the political and cultural spectrum, insisting that everything really is all right and that any suggestion to the contrary ought to be shouted down as quickly as possible.

That’s been one of the less useful habits of large parts of the American right for some time now. Still, the habit of detachment from reality reached new lows this month, as North Carolina’s senate passed legislation forbidding the state from considering scientific evidence for rising sea levels in any policy dealing with the state’s low and vulnerable coastline. Texas and Virginia have already taken similar steps; it’s reminiscent of King Canute, who famously commanded the tide to retreat and just as famously got his royal feet good and wet.  Since all three of these states are in the hurricane belt, and rising sea levels add mightily to the destructive impact of hurricane storm surges, it’s unlikely that this attempt to better Canute’s score will end so harmlessly.

Over on the other side of the spectrum, mind you, there’s no shortage of equivalent ideas. My fellow peak oil blogger Jan Lundberg, an activist well over on the leftward side of things, recently posted a thoughtful critique of the ideas on display at a San Francisco alternative culture expo. In there with the alternative healers and pop mysticism was a pervasive and contemptuous rejection of the idea that there might be limits to material abundance. That habit’s been popular in the New Age scene for decades—Rhonda Byrne’s meretricious The Secret, with its insistence that focusing on your sense of personal entitlement will browbeat the universe into giving you all the goodies you want, has a long pedigree—but as Lundberg pointed out, it’s become tangled up with frankly paranoid conspiracy theories and frankly delusional notions about the human mind’s alleged ability to repeal the laws of thermodynamics. Lundberg suggests that what’s emerging here is a New Age equivalent to the Tea Party, and he’s quite correct:  there’s really not much to choose between "visualize, baby, visualize" and "drill, baby, drill."

I had a personal run-in with the same sort of thinking not long ago, in the course of finding a publisher for After Oil, the anthology of peak oil science fiction to which this blog’s readers contributed so many excellent stories late last year. (Yes, it’s going to press; I hope to have a tentative release date shortly.) One potential publisher, who had been enthusiastic about the project early on, rejected it with some heat once he read the manuscript.  He didn’t object to the literary quality of the stories; no, what upset him was the fact that the stories assumed that people in a post-peak oil world would be more or less like people today, living in a world no more loaded with miracles than the one we now inhabit. Why, he asked, couldn’t the authors have written stories in which the problem of peak oil was solved by people sprouting psychic antennae, or creating new forms of kinship with water molecules, or at the very least powering the world on algae fuel?

Now of course there is an answer to that question, which is that the point of the anthology was to tell stories about the kind of futures we’re going to get, rather than chasing pretty daydreams that start by pretending that the realities of our predicament don’t apply to us.  In the real world, my readers will have noticed, there’s a distinct shortage of people who grow antennae, psychic or otherwise; while cultivating a sense of kinship with water molecules seems reasonable enough to me—the human body is mostly water, after all—it’s not going to make water behave any differently than it does today; and there are solid thermodynamic reasons, discussed here and elsewhere, why algal biodiesel will never be more than a laboratory curiosity on the one hand, and a lure for unwary investors on the other.  Still, it became clear very quickly that this answer was not the sort of thing the publisher wanted to hear.

It’s something a great many people don’t want to hear these days, and the refusal to hear it is getting distinctly shrill in some quarters—consider the angry tone of the latest press releases from the financial sphere insisting that peak oil is nonsense—after all, it ought to be obvious to any reasonable person that waving around enough money will brush aside the laws of physics and geology, right?  Not too long ago, that insistence used to be expressed in tones of insufferable superiority—think of Daniel Yergin’s dismissals of peak oil, or the airy optimism of Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. Now of course Lomborg insisted that the price of oil would remain at $20 to $30 a barrel through 2020, and Yergin in 2004 claimed that the price of oil had reached a permanent plateau at $38 a barrel; the failure of oil prices to do as they were told doubtless contributed to the more strident tone such proclamations so often get these days.

Still, it’s not the shrill tone of the latest round that has me watching with more than the usual concern. It’s the increasing sense that not even the people who are promoting such claims actually believe them any more. The North Carolina legislators who are trying to pretend that sea level rise won’t happen, like their equivalents in Texas and Virginia, remind me of nothing so much as six-year-olds who stuff their fingers in their ears, scrunch their eyes shut, and chant "I can’t hear you, la la la" at the top of their lungs. The New Age equivalent is a little more subtle, but after half a century of failed predictions of saucer landings and leaps of consciousness—and let’s not even talk about what happened to the millions of Americans who tried to use The Secret to make boatloads of money for nothing by investing in the late real estate bubble—there can’t be many people left in the scene who don’t know, on some level, that they’re kidding themselves.  For that matter, if the publisher who turned down After Oil suddenly sprouted a pair of antennae, it’s probably a safe bet that, instead of embracing the event as a welcome miracle, he’d call a dermatologist in a fair state of panic.

If that’s the case—if the incantations being repeated these days to justify doing nothing significant about the crisis of our age are no longer even plausible to most of the people who mouth them—we are a good deal closer to a critical juncture in the downward slide than I thought. Visible ahead of us is a parting of the ways that will define a great deal of what we will experience in the years to come.

To understand that parting of the ways, it’s important to get a good clear sense of how self-deception works. I suspect most of my readers have had the experience of arguing themselves into believing, at least for a short time, something that they knew was not true.  It’s a fascinating study in the corruption of the intellect. To start with, much more often than not, questions of the truth of the belief in question are ignored or actively evaded; what matters is that accepting the false belief will bring practical benefits, or please another person, or identify the believer with an admirable person or group.

As the false belief is affirmed in public and expressed in action, though, the critical space required to accept the belief publicly without believing it inwardly trickles away.  The cognitive dissonance that comes from affirming and enacting a belief without believing it is hard to bear, and the more the belief is affirmed and enacted, the more painful the dissonance becomes.  One way out of the dissonance is to abandon the false belief, but social pressures often make that a costly and embarrassing step; the other option,  to make yourself believe that the false belief is true, routinely comes with equally substantial social rewards. It’s not surprising that a significant number of people make that latter choice.

Once it’s made, though, the pathologies of repressed disbelief unfold in predictable ways.  The believer becomes brittle and defensive about the false belief, affirming it loudly and publicly, and taking on the familiar social role of the strident true believer.  Elaborate arguments for the truth of the false belief take on an ever larger role in his mental life; if books of such arguments exist, you can count on finding them on his bookshelves, while his willingness to encounter differing views—not even opposing ones, but simply those that are not identical to the cherished false belief—drops like a rock.

Convincing the rest of the world of the truth of the false belief becomes a central concern, since every new convert to the false belief helps shore up the believer’s self-imposed conviction that the false belief really is true. Onto those who refuse to be converted, meanwhile, the believer projects not only his own unspoken doubts, but the bad faith and hypocrisy that surrounds those doubts.  Thus, in the mind of the believer, the unbeliever gets turned into a caricature of everything the believer can’t stand in himself, and serves by turns as a straw man, a scapegoat, and the supposed cause of everything evil in the world. 

How this trajectory ends is determined by the nature of the false belief itself, or more precisely by the relation between the false belief and the world of objective fact. If the belief does not require the world to behave in a way that it manifestly doesn’t, it’s entirely possible for believers to spend the rest of their lives loudly proclaiming the truth of a belief they know is false, and hating those people who reject the belief for openly speaking the truth the believers are unwilling to utter, without going further into oughtright psychopathology.  It’s when the false belief makes specific, falsifiable claims about the way the world works that problems crop up; the more central these claims are to the belief system, and the more obviously and repeatedly the claims are falsified, the more difficult those problems become.

The most productive way to cope with those problems is to abandon the false belief, and of course a good many people do that after a sufficiently forceful disconfirmation. Much less productive is the option of doubling down on the belief system, insisting on its truth in the face of any amount of evidence, and following it out to its logical conclusions no matter how horrific those happen to be. That’s how mass suicides happen:  back yourself into the blind alley of unconditional commitment to a belief you know to be false, and reject even the slightest doubt about the belief as a failure that’s unthinkable precisely because you’re constantly thinking it, and the temptation to prove your loyalty to the false belief in the one ultimately unanswerable way can be very hard to resist.

Most of my readers will be able to call examples of this trajectory easily to mind, and a fair number will have experienced at least a small part of it themselves. I’ve come to think, though, that in the years immediately ahead of us, it’s going to be almost impossible to miss.  Plenty of belief systems will have to deal with repeated disconfirmation, but the one that’s likely to get hit the hardest, and may well produce the biggest crop of pathological behavior, is the established religion of the modern industrial world, the belief in the inevitability and goodness of progress.

I’d like to suggest that it’s precisely the failure of the modern faith in progress that’s driving the rush to illusion discussed earlier in this post. Belief in progress has no place for the awkward reality that the wastes we’re pumping into the atmosphere are putting pressure on an already unstable global climate, sending meltwater flooding into the oceans and raising sea level; after all, according to the believers, progress is supposed to solve problems, not cause them. Belief in progress has no place for the hard fact that economic abundance can’t simply be wished into being, but depends on ample supplies of the cheap, concentrated energy that, in this corner of the universe, can only be had in sufficient quantities from the fossil fuels we’re depleting so rapidly. Belief in progress has no place at all, finally, for the unwelcome but necessary recognition that we won’t get far by sitting on our backsides and waiting for psychic antennae or some other miracle to save us from the consequences of our own mistakes.

Precisely because it has no place for these things, in turn, the faith in progress is taking quite a beating these days.  As the United States quietly folds up its space program, hands over its infrastructure to malign neglect, allows measures of public health to drop toward Third World levels, and lets what’s left of its economy devolves into a dishonest casino game, the mere fact that a narrowing circle of well-off individuals can buy electronic toys slightly more complex than last year’s equivalents just doesn’t have the cachet it once did. Even the mainstream media has had a harder time clinging to the mythic power of progress than it once did; it’s symptomatic that the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch—reread that, and let it sink in for a moment—recently hosted an essay pointing out that the idea of infinite growth is a delusion, and that economics has become a pseudoscience incapable of providing meaningful information about the future. ("What do you call an economist who makes a prediction?  Wrong.")

The question is how people will react to the increasing disconfirmation of the myth of progress. Some, I am relieved to say, have bitten the bullet, accepted the fact that progress was a temporary condition made possible by extravagant and unsustainable exploitation of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves, and begun to grapple with the challenges and possibilities of a future where progress no longer takes place and contraction and regression are the rule.  More will likely do so as we proceed—many more, in all probability, than I thought possible when I launched this blog six years ago. Still, I doubt the refusal to give up on the failed myth will be limited to North Carolina politicians, San Francisco New Age aficionados, and avant-garde publishers.

I suspect, rather, that the refusal to recognize and deal with the end of progress will become a massive social force in the decade or so ahead of us, and that the great divide in American society during those years will not be the one between left and right, or between rich and poor, but between those who have accepted history’s verdict on our fantasy of perpetual progress, on the one hand, and those who cling to the fantasy despite all disconfirmations, on the other.  Since refusing to recognize the fact of decline is a good way to get clobbered over the head by one or another of that fact’s manifestations—a point that the inhabitants of coastal North Carolina are likely to find out the hard way one of these days—those who choose the path of denial may be in for a very rough road indeed.

End of the World of the Week #26

Most fans of really bad cinema have enjoyed, if that is the right word, Ed Wood’s 1959 opus Plan Nine From Outer Space, the Golden Turkey Award winner for worst movie of all time. I sometimes wonder how many of them realize that the bizarre talking head who opens the movie, spouting preposterous prophecies in a stentorian voice, was once a significant cultural presence—the Amazing Criswell, America’s least convincing psychic!

Jeron Criswell Konig was a Hollywood figure in the 1950s and 1960s, a close friend of Mae West and a regular guest on The Jack Paar Show. His career as a psychic began inauspiciously enough when he needed material to pad out what would now be called "infomercials" for vitamins he was selling, and decided to put in predictions about the future. Giddily improbable though his prophecies were—he predicted that Denver would be destroyed in 1989 by a ray from space that would turn metal and stone to the consistency of rubber, that an epidemic of cannibalism would devastate Pittsburgh in 1980, and that Mae West would be elected President of the United States—he managed to get three books of predictions into print. (I read one of them in the Burien, WA public library when I was seven or eight years old, and even at that age found it utterly unconvincing.)

The end of the world, inevitably featured in the Amazing Criswell’s repertoire. That was scheduled to take place on August 18, 1999. A black rainbow would appear over the earth and, by some means not given in detail, would cause all the world’s oxygen to disappear, suffocating every living thing on the planet. It’s probably unnecessary to point out that, like most of Criswell’s other predictions, this one turned out to be a dud.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not