The View From The Grassy Knoll

I’ve argued before that the unfolding crisis of industrial society is not really a technical problem, to be solved by the familiar tools of science and engineering. It’s a human problem, with deep roots in the mythic narratives we use to make sense of the worlds of our experience. It’s worth remembering that those of us discussing peak oil are not exempt from the same difficulty. Like every other member of our species, we think with narratives, with roughly the same inevitability with which we walk with feet, and the narratives we use to make sense of peak oil can be just as misleading as the narratives other people use to ignore it.

In some of my previous posts here, I’ve talked about one very common narrative that structures thought in the peak oil community—the narrative of apocalypse, the sudden purifying cataclysm that will show everyone else just how wrong they are, and punish them for it. Still, that’s far from the only narrative that’s been swept up in the unfolding dialogue about peak oil, and this week’s post will focus on another such narrative.

A recent conversation with a peak-oil-literate friend brought this narrative to center stage for me. The two of us were sitting in front of an Ashland coffee house, calmly discussing the end of industrial civilization while SUVs zoomed past on the street in front of us, doing their level best to make our worst case scenarios look mild. I honestly don’t recall what we were talking about when my friend suddenly veered off topic, as it seemed to me, onto the subject of revisionist speculations about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

To my friend, as it happens, this is anything but unrelated to peak oil, and he seemed as nonplussed by my unwillingness to connect these particular dots as I was by his insistence that the connection had already been inked in by events. After a brief discussion we moved on to other topics, but I’ve been mulling about the exchange since then. It’s not as though the same debate hasn’t surfaced in other corners of the peak oil community, either. Richard Heinberg, one of the leading figures in the peak oil scene, devoted a sizeable part of his book Powerdown to claims of US government complicity in the 9/11 bombings. James Howard Kunstler, another heavy hitter, has argued the opposite case, insisting that the whole 9/11 revisionist movement is basically a paranoid obsession.

To my mind, though, the whole controversy unfolds from the working out of a myth with deep roots in popular consciousness. Call it the story of the Man Who Found Out. You know this story; it was on TV last night; that mystery novel you saw in the checkout line at the supermarket is all about it, so were five of the last six videos you rented, and quite possibly one of your recent dreams. The story starts with some horrible event. There’s an obvious explanation for it, but there’s also one person who realizes there’s much more going on than meets the eye. After a lonely quest that has to overcome ridicule and stonewalling from the official authorities, our hero uncovers the truth and reveals it to the public in a redeeming revelation that thwarts the villain, saves the innocent, and as often as not lands the protagonist in the love interest’s arms.

It’s not always fiction, either. Most myths are true at least some of the time; that’s why they have the power they do. The myth of progress was true more often than not betwen 1650 and 1950, and that gave it the sway it still holds over our collective imagination. In the same way, the myth of the Man Who Found Out works often enough to make police departments hire detectives, countries establish intelligence services, and ordinary people ask searching questions whenever the initial answers seem too pat.

Like every other myth, though, the story of the Man Who Found Out makes good sense of some situations, partial sense of others, and nonsense of still others. Despite some of Joseph Campbell’s more enthusiastic claims, there is no monomyth, no narrative that makes sense of everything. Still, the myth we’re discussing is seductive, because of its promise of empowerment. The Man Who Found Out has no power except the ability to find the truth, and in the myth, that’s all the power he needs. Thus it’s a very appealing myth for those who feel disempowered and believe they know something others don’t.

The problem, of course, is that it can also be a distraction. If there was a time for this myth in the peak oil community, it was back in the 1990s when a handful of people were first trying to bring the imminence of Hubbert’s peak to the attention of the wider world. Unfortunately, the moment of revelation came and went, and most people shrugged and kept on driving. At that point other myths became more useful. The fact that a myth stops being useful, though, does not necessarily make it less appealing.

Now for all I know, it may be true that George W. Bush personally ordered somebody to fake a terrorist attack on the United States. Mind you, this seems unlikely to me. I’d sooner vote for Bozo the Clown, but I’ve never found much plausibility in the claim that the mediocrities making up the current administration could stand in for Sauron the Dark Lord. They may be corrupt, even slightly more so than the administration that preceded them; their competence could surely be questioned; the elections that put them in office quite possibly involved vote fraud, as do most American elections – I trust at least some of my readers recall the voting machines on the bottom of Lake Michigan that put JFK in the White House.

I find it illuminating, though, to compare current rhetoric on the left with its equivalents on the other end of the political spectrum. Just as the right, smarting from electoral defeat in 1992, took refuge in claims that Bill Clinton was about to unleash a fleet of black helicopters on America’s gun owners, the left took refuge from an equivalent defeat in 2000 in claims that George Bush was about to turn America into a fascist police state. All this has played an important role in generating the seething partisan hatreds that have helped make constructive change all but impossible in the United States.

These hatreds, it seems to me, have made it all but impossible to notice the real significance of the neoconservative ascendancy. At a time when the market-based approach to America’s energy predicament embraced back in the Reagan era had clearly failed, and no one else had a politically viable alternative to offer, the neoconservatives offered a plan of action, and enough of the fragmented American political class united behind that plan to give the neoconservatives their chance. The plan proved to be hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and the loose consensus that brought it into play is fragmenting now, with results that will likely make the 2008 election more than usually dramatic.

Still, something like the neoconservative project was probably inevitable, if only because the American people have made it painfully clear that any politician who tries to deny them the privileges they think they deserve needs to find a new career. We will be very lucky if the next round of economic contraction and political failure fails to launch something much worse – and the slogans next time could come from the left just as easily as from the right.

Whether or not that happens, though, two things seem fairly certain. The first is that none of us will ever know exactly what happened in US airspace on the morning of September 11th, 2001. The second is that in terms of the future of industrial civilization, it doesn’t actually matter much. The crucial tasks ahead of us right now are establishing new frameworks for local economies, salvaging skills and technologies appropriate to a period of relative energy scarcity, and making a start at the daunting task of rebuilding civil society in our communities. None of these tasks will be noticeably furthered by the sort of conspiracy-hunting that keeps people busy to this day prowling Dealey Plaza in Dallas, pondering the view from the grassy knoll in yet another effort to figure out who shot JFK.

All these crucial tasks, furthermore, require us to move away from the sort of political demonology exemplified by so much of the rhetoric around 9/11 revisionism. Blaming all our woes on the other party’s politicians is an old American pastime, to be sure, but an increasingly counterproductive one. One of the lessons of peak oil that may prove hardest to learn is that the troubles we face unfold not from someone else’s malice, or even their incompetence, but from what sociologist C. Wright Mills called “fate,” the unintended consequences of our own everyday actions. But here again we circle back to the bedrock requirement of our predicament, the need to make changes in our own lives. It’s not an easy thing, and the pursuit of clues on one grassy knoll or another may be so popular because it helps to distract us from that challenge.