The Song of the Snallygaster (2014)

I've noticed, over the past few years, a growing lack of enthusiasm in the formerly raucous festivities that once marked the end of one year and the beginning of another. That was certainly in evidence last night in our old red brick mill town here in the eastern end of the Rust Belt. As my wife and I clicked glasses together, the night outside was hushed. It was as though all the people who were grateful to see 2013 hauled away to the glue factory suddenly realized that the new year might well be worse.
I’m not sure why I didn’t share in the general gloom. When you live in a decaying empire that’s trying to meet the rising costs of its short-term survival by selling its own grandchildren down the river, contemplating the future that results from that choice isn’t exactly a recipe for hilarity, and making a career out of writing about that future might seem like a good way to meet each new year in a profound depression or a drunken stupor, take your pick. Still, that hasn’t been the case for me. Maybe it’s that I came to terms with the reality of our civilization’s impending decline back in the 1970s, when you could still talk about such things in public without being shouted down by true believers in perpetual progress and instant apocalypse, the Tweedledoom and Tweedledee of our collective non-conversation about the future; whatever the cause, I waved hello to the New Year and sipped a glass of bourbon in relatively good cheer.

There was at least one extraneous reason for that cheer. One of my solstice presents this year was a lively little book, Mysteries and Lore of Western Maryland by local author Susan Fair. Most parts of the United States have at least one book like it, collecting the ghost stories, spooky tales, and weird creatures of the area, and this one is a good and highly readable example of the species.  Reading it took me back to some of the least wretched hours of my childhood, when I found refuge from a disintegrating family, and a school life marred by American education’s culture of mediocrity and bullying, by chasing down anything that made the walls of the world press a little less closely against me on all sides. Monster lore played a significant role in that process, and so I was delighted, in reading Fair’s book, to make the acquaintance of one of the local “fearsome critters,” the snallygaster.

Any of my readers who happen to be adept in American monster folklore will no doubt be leaping for their keyboards to tell me that the same word’s spelled “snoligoster” or “snollygoster” elsewhere. Yes, I know; it’s different here. (In western Maryland, for reasons I haven’t yet deciphered, the letter A is more popular than its rival vowels; the Native American name for the local mountain range, written out as “Allegheny” everywhere else, is spelled “Allegany” here and rhymes with “rainy.”) The snallygaster, as I was saying, was a dragonlike creature with huge wings, a long pointed tail, a single eye in the middle of its forehead, and octopuslike tentacles that dangled behind it as it flew. 

This remarkable apparition was apparently all over western Maryland in 1909, and then again in 1932; during both flaps, the newspapers splashed the story all over the front page of issue after issue, and everyone in the region seems to have known someone who knew someone who knew someone who just missed seeing it. Even when it met its end—it drowned, according to newspaper reports, after falling into a 2500-gallon vat of illegal whiskey in the notorious local moonshiner’s haven of Frog Hollow—its presence was evanescent:  its body dissolved in the liquor, and the government agents who were raiding the operation when the snallygaster met its doom proceeded to break open the vat and spill the contents, rather than bottling and selling what would surely have been the most unique beverage ever produced by the region’s less-than-legal distilling industry.

Snallygasters thus share in the most important characteristic of the “fearsome critters” of American monster folklore:  everybody knows about them, but you’ll never actually meet anybody who’s seen one. That characteristic isn’t unique to monsters. It also features in the peak oil scene, and in particular in one of the more common habits of that scene, especially though not only around this time of year. That’s as much justification as you’ll get for the cameo appearance of snallygasters in this week’s post—well, beyond the fact that snallygasters, and local folklore generally, deserve more attention than they usually get these days—because it’s mostly these habits that I want to talk about this week.

The weeks to either side of January 1 each year, as regular readers of peak oil blogs will have noted long since, are festooned with predictions about what’s going to happen in the year to come. That habit’s not limited to the peak oil scene, to be sure, but a curious feature is shared by many peak oil blogs: the prophecies that pop up during this annual orgy of prognostication are quite often the same ones that appeared the previous year, and the year before that, and so on back as far as the archives go. Most of those predictions, furthermore, flopped—that is, the events so confidently predicted did not happen within the time frame the prediction assigned them—but reflections on that awkward reality in these same blogs are about as rare as snallygasters singing duets in your back yard.

It’s high time for this bad habit to get drowned in a tub of moonshine once and for all. Those of us who talk about peak oil and the other troubles closing in on contemporary industrial civilization have precisely one thing to offer that deserves the attention of anybody else—that our ideas, and the predictions we base on them, might help others figure out what’s happening to the world around them at a time when more familiar ways of thinking aren’t providing useful guidance. If our predictions are no more accurate than those of raving maniacs, mainstream economists, and the like, nobody has any reason to listen to us. In point of fact, I’ve come to think that one of the most important reasons why the peak oil movement is all but dead in the water these days is that too many people outside it have read too many rehashes of the same failed predictions too many times, and decided that peak oil writers simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

I’d like to suggest that the lack of attention paid by peak oil authors to the failure rate of their predictions has contributed heartily to that reaction. For this reason, before I review the predictions I made in my first post of 2013 and offer some new ones for the year that’s just begun, I’m going to take a moment to discuss predictions of mine that flopped, and what I’ve learned from those flops.

The first of my failed predictions has evaded my attempts to find it in this blog’s archives, but it appeared sometime in 2007 or 2008, if I recall correctly.  I noted the skyrocketing price of oil, surveyed the claims then being made by other peak oil writers that it would just keep on zooming up forever, and argued instead that it would plateau and then decline over the course of the next few decades. I was, of course, quite wrong, but so were the people whose ideas I was challenging; the price of crude oil spiked up to just shy of $150 a barrel and then crashed at once, plunging to not much more than a fifth of that figure, before resuming a ragged upwards movement to its present level just north of $100 a barrel. The raw volatility of the oil market blindsided me, as it did many others; it was an embarrassing lesson, and one that’s shaped my efforts to estimate oil price movements since that time.

The second appeared in several of my posts and responses to comments in 2009 and 2010. At that time, I was convinced that Barack Obama would be a one-term president.  It was inconceivable to me that the Democrats who spent eight years in a state of spit-slinging fury at George W. Bush’s war crimes, abuses of civil liberties, and huge giveaways to big corporations, would fall all over themselves finding excuses for the identical actions performed by Barack Obama. It was also inconceivable to me that the Republicans, faced with the weakest Democratic incumbent in many decades, would ransack the nation to find a candidate the American people would like even less.  Of course that’s exactly what happened; a great many Democrats demonstrated with painful clarity that the respect for civil liberties and the rule of law they paraded so loudly during the Bush years was simply a cover for the usual partisan hatreds, while the Republican party showed just as clearly how detached it’s become from those Americans—a substantial majority, by the way—who don’t belong to the handful of isolated pressure groups whose vagaries currently shape GOP policy. We haven’t yet had another national election, but I can assure my readers that I won’t be making those mistakes again.

The third appeared in several posts in late 2011 and early 2012, as the hoopla around the fake-Mayan 2012 prophecy was shifting into high gear. I thought, based on historical parallels, that 2012 might turn out to be an apocalyptic frenzy for the record books, with crowds of believers gathering on hilltops to wait for December 21 to dawn and watch the Space Brothers land, or what have you.  That didn’t happen; quite the contrary, in the weeks just prior to December 21, quite a few of the big names in the 2012 scene started backpedaling on their previous insistence that some worldchanging event would surely happen that day. I’ve factored that curious turn of events into my thinking about the next big apocalyptic furore—of which more shortly.

The fourth appeared last February in one of my posts on the current fracking bubble. At that time, for a variety of reasons, I thought that the financial bubble that’s inflated around shale oil in the last few years was within a few months of a messy collapse. I remain convinced that it’s going to pop—bubbles always do, and the fracking business has all the classic signs of a speculative bubble, from the bellowing about a new era of prosperity right around the corner all the way down to the dodgy financial underpinnings—but I was obviously wrong about the timing; the month before, I’d suggested 2014 as a likely date for the inevitable crash, and I should have stuck with that estimate.

So those are the four failed predictions of mine I recalled while glancing back over the nearly eight years this blog has been in existence. There may have been others that I missed—if so, I encourage my readers to bring them up on the comments page and we’ll talk about them. Such mistakes are all but impossible to avoid when discussing something as elusive as the future, and archdruids are no more infallible than anyone else; in fact, the late head of a different Druid order once promulgated an official Dogma of Archdruidical Fallibility to declare in formal terms that he was going to make mistakes.  We don’t have any dogmas at all in the Druid order I head, but the principle still applies.

With that cautionary note in mind, let’s turn to the predictions I made at the beginning of 2013 about the year ahead. Here they are:

“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...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...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.”

The bouncing baby sibling of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy didn’t put in an appearance, and so the first tentative shifts of businesses and population inland from the vulnerable Atlantic coast will have to wait a few more years. Other than that, I think it’s fair to say that once again, I called it.

My prediction for 2014, in turn, is that we’ll see more of the same:  another year, that is, of uneven but continued downward movement along the same arc of decline and fall, while official statistics here in the United States will be doctored even more extravagantly than before to manufacture a paper image of prosperity. The number of Americans trying to survive without a job will continue to increase, the effective standard of living for most of the population will continue to decline, and what used to count as the framework of ordinary life in this country will go on unraveling a thread at a time. Even so, the dollar, the Euro, the stock market, and the Super Bowl will still be functioning as 2015 begins; there will still be gas in the gas pumps and food on grocery store shelves, though fewer people will be able to afford to buy either one.

The fracking bubble has more than lived up to last year’s expectations, filling the mass media with vast amounts of meretricious handwaving about the coming era of abundance:  the same talk, for all practical purposes, that surrounded the equally delusional claims made for the housing bubble, the tech bubble, and so on all the way back to the Dutch tulip bubble of 1637. That rhetoric will prove just as dishonest as its predecessors, and the supposed new era of prosperity will come tumbling back down to earth once the bubble pops, taking a good chunk of the American economy with it. Will that happen in 2014? That’s almost impossible to know in advance. Timing the collapse of a bubble is one of the trickiest jobs in economic life; no less a mind than Isaac Newton’s was caught flatfooted by the collapse of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, and the current bubble is far more opaque. My guess is that the collapse will come toward the end of 2014, but it could have another year or so to run first.

It’s probably a safe bet that weather-related disasters will continue to increase in number and severity. If we get a whopper on the scale of Katrina or Sandy, watch the Federal response; it’s certain to fall short of meeting the needs of the survivors and their communities, but the degree to which it falls short will be a useful measure of just how brittle and weak the national government has become. One of these years—just possibly this year, far more likely later on—that weakness is going to become one of the crucial political facts of our time, and responses to major domestic disasters are among the few good measures we’ll have of how close we are to the inevitable crisis.

Meanwhile, what won’t happen is at least as important as what will. Despite plenty of enthusiastic pronouncements and no shortage of infomercials disguised as meaningful journalism, there will be no grand breakthroughs on the energy front. Liquid fuels—that is to say, petroleum plus anything else that can be thrown into a gas tank—will keep on being produced at something close to 2013’s rates, though the fraction of the total supply that comes from expensive alternative fuels with lower net energy and higher production costs will continue to rise, tightening a noose around the neck of every other kind of economic activity. Renewables will remain as dependent on government subsidies as they’ve been all along, nuclear power will remain dead in the water, fusion will remain a pipe dream, and more exotic items such as algal biodiesel will continue to soak up their quotas of investment dollars before going belly up in the usual way. Once the fracking bubble starts losing air, expect something else to be scooped up hurriedly by the media and waved around to buttress the claim that peak oil won’t happen, doesn’t matter, and so on; any of my readers who happen to guess correctly what that will be, and manage their investments accordingly, may just make a great deal of money.

Sudden world-ending catastrophes will also be in short supply in 2014, though talk about them will be anything but. The current vagaries of the apocalypse lobby probably deserve a post of their own; the short version is that another prediction of mine—that the failure of the fake-Mayan 2012 prophecy would very quickly be followed by the emergence of another date of supposedly imminent doom—has already come true, with knobs on. The new date is 2030; expect to see the same dubious logic, the same frantic cherrypicking of factoids, and the same mass production of different theories sharing only a common date, that played such important and disreputable roles in the 2012 fracas.  Since we’ve got more than a decade and a half to go before the next Nothing Happened Day arrives, there’s plenty of time for the marketing machine to get rolling before the snallygaster sings, and roll it will.

Both the grandiose breakthroughs that never happen and the equally gaudy catastrophes that never happen will thus continue to fill their current role as excuses not to think about, much less do anything about, what’s actually happening around us right now—the long ragged decline and fall of industrial civilization that I’ve called the Long Descent. Given the popularity of both these evasive moves, we can safely assume that one more thing won’t happen in 2014:  any meaningful collective response to the rising spiral of crises that’s shredding our societies and our future. As before, anything useful that’s going to happen will be the work of individuals, families, and community groups, using the resources on hand to cope with local conditions. I’ve talked at great length here, and in several of my books, about some of the things that might go into such a response, and I won’t rehash that now; we’ll be talking about much of it from another perspective in the months ahead.

There’s at least one other question about the immediate future that I plan on leaving up in the air for now, though, and it circles back to some of the points I made toward the start of this post. I’ve just noted the times in the past where my guesses about the future have been wrong, explained why they were wrong, and talked about what I learned from the experience. I then reviewed the predictions I made at the beginning of 2013, checked them against the facts, and used the results as a basis for my 2014 predictions. I’d like to encourage other writers and bloggers exploring peak oil, and the shape of the future more generally, to do the same thing right out here in public, review their successes and their flops, and talk about how their 2013 predictions worked out over the year just past.

On second thought, I think we can go further than that. Bloggers and writers in the peak oil community who make predictions, and expect those predictions to be taken seriously, owe it to their readers to subject their predictions to honest assessment once they can be compared to the facts. If it’s reasonable for us to talk about the failed predictions of cornucopians,  fusion-power advocates, and the like, and of course it is, we need to be willing to ‘fess up to our own mistakes and learn from them, rather than just making them over and over again in the fond belief that nobody will notice. Those who indulge in this latter habit are doing active harm to the cause of peak oil awareness, and it’s high time that the rest of us start pointing out that they’re not offering useful insights into the future—just engaging in a hackneyed form of science fiction useful for entertainment purposes only.

The clatter you just heard? That was the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down. It will be interesting to see whether anyone picks it up.