Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Dark Age America: The Senility of the Elites

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt recall that, toward the beginning of last month, I commented on a hostile review of one of my books that had just appeared in the financial blogosphere. At the time, I noted that the mainstream media normally ignore the critics of business as usual, and suggested that my readers might want to watch for similar attacks by more popular pundits, in more mainstream publications, on those critics who have more of a claim to conventional respectability than, say, archdruids. Such attacks, as I pointed out then, normally happen in the weeks immediately before business as usual slams face first into a brick wall of its own making

Well, it’s happened. Brace yourself for the impact.

The pundit in question was no less a figure than Paul Krugman, who chose the opinion pages of the New York Times for a shrill and nearly fact-free diatribe lumping Post Carbon Institute together with the Koch brothers as purveyors of “climate despair.” PCI’s crime, in Krugman’s eyes, consists of noticing that the pursuit of limitless economic growth on a finite planet, with or without your choice of green spraypaint, is a recipe for disaster.  Instead of paying attention to such notions, he insists, we ought to believe the IMF and a panel of economists when they claim that replacing trillions of dollars of fossil fuel-specific infrastructure with some unnamed set of sustainable replacements will somehow cost nothing, and that we can have all the economic growth we want because, well, because we can, just you wait and see!

PCI’s Richard Heinberg responded with a crisp and tautly reasoned rebuttal pointing out the gaping logical and factual holes in Krugman’s screed, so there’s no need for me to cover the same ground here. Mind you, Heinberg was too gentlemanly to point out that the authorities Krugman cites aren’t exactly known for their predictive accuracy—the IMF in particular has become notorious in recent decades for insisting that austerity policies that have brought ruin to every country that has ever tried them are the one sure ticket to prosperity—but we can let that pass, too. What I want to talk about here is what Krugman’s diatribe implies for the immediate future.

Under normal circumstances, dissident groups such as Post Carbon Institute and dissident intellectuals such as Richard Heinberg never, but never, get air time in the mainstream media. At most, a cheap shot or two might be aimed at unnamed straw men while passing from one bit of conventional wisdom to the next. It’s been one of the most interesting details of the last few years that peak oil has actually been mentioned by name repeatedly by mainstream pundits: always, to be sure, in tones of contempt, and always in the context of one more supposed proof that a finite planet can too cough up infinite quantities of oil, but it’s been named. The kind of total suppression that happened between the mid-1980s and the turn of the millennium, when the entire subject vanished from the collective conversation of our society, somehow didn’t happen this time.

That says to me that a great many of those who were busy denouncing peak oil and the limits to growth were far less confident than they wanted to appear. You don’t keep on trying to disprove something that nobody believes, and of course the mere fact that oil prices and other quantitative measures kept on behaving the way peak oil theory said they would behave, rather than trotting obediently the way peak oil critics such as Bjorn Lomborg and Daniel Yergin told them to go, didn’t help matters much. The cognitive dissonance between the ongoing proclamations of coming prosperity via fracking and the soaring debt load and grim financial figures of the fracking industry has added to the burden.

Even so, it’s only in extremis that denunciations of this kind shift from attacks on ideas to attacks on individuals. As I noted in the earlier post, one swallow does not a summer make, and one ineptly written book review by an obscure blogger on an obscure website denouncing an archdruid, of all people, might indicate nothing more than a bout of dyspepsia or a disappointing evening at the local singles bar.  When a significant media figure uses one of the world’s major newspapers of record to lash out at a particular band of economic heretics by name, on the other hand, we’ve reached the kind of behavior that only happens, historically speaking, when crunch time is very, very close. Given that we’ve also got a wildly overvalued stock market, falling commodity prices, and a great many other symptoms of drastic economic trouble bearing down on us right now, not to mention the inevitable unraveling of the fracking bubble, there’s a definite chance that the next month or two could see the start of a really spectacular financial crash.

While we wait for financiers to start raining down on Wall Street sidewalks, though, it’s far from inappropriate to continue with the current sequence of posts about the end of industrial civilization—especially as the next topic in line is the way that the elites of a falling civilization destroy themselves.

One of the persistent tropes in current speculations on the future of our civilization revolves around the notion that the current holders of wealth and influence will entrench themselves even more firmly in their positions as things fall apart. A post here back in 2007 criticized what was then a popular form of that trope, the claim that the elites planned to impose a “feudal-fascist” regime on the deindustrial world. That critique still applies; that said, it’s worth discussing what tends to happen to elite classes in the decline and fall of a civilization, and seeing what that has to say about the probable fate of the industrial world’s elite class as our civilization follows the familiar path.

It’s probably necessary to say up front that we’re not talking about the evil space lizards that haunt David Icke’s paranoid delusions, or for that matter the faux-Nietzschean supermen who play a parallel role in Ayn Rand’s dreary novels and even drearier pseudophilosophical rants. What we’re talking about, rather, is something far simpler, which all of my readers will have experienced in their own lives.  Every group of social primates has an inner core of members who have more access to the resources controlled by the group, and more influence over the decisions made by the group, than other members.  How individuals enter that core and maintain themselves there against their rivals varies from one set of social primates to another—baboons settle such matters with threat displays backed up with violence, church ladies do the same thing with social maneuvering and gossip, and so on—but the effect is the same: a few enter the inner core, the rest are excluded from it. That process, many times amplified, gives rise to the ruling elite of a civilization.

I don’t happen to know much about the changing patterns of leadership in baboon troops, but among human beings, there’s a predictable shift over time in the way that individuals gain access to the elite. When institutions are new and relatively fragile, it’s fairly easy for a gifted and ambitious outsider to bluff and bully his way into the elite. As any given institution becomes older and more firmly settled in its role, that possibility fades. What happens instead in a mature institution is that the existing members of the elite group select, from the pool of available candidates, those individuals who will be allowed to advance into the elite.  The church ladies just mentioned are a good example of this process in action; if any of my readers are doctoral candidates in sociology looking for a dissertation topic, I encourage them to consider joining a local church, and tracking the way the elderly women who run most of its social functions groom their own replacements and exclude those they consider unfit for that role.

That process is a miniature version of the way the ruling elite of the world’s industrial nations select new additions to their number. There, as among church ladies, there are basically two routes in. You can be born into the family of a member of the inner circle, and if you don’t run off the rails too drastically, you can count on a place in the inner circle yourself in due time. Alternatively, you can work your way in from outside by being suitably deferential and supportive to the inner circle, meeting all of its expectations and conforming to its opinions and decisions, until the senior members of the elite start treating you as a junior member and the junior members have to deal with you as an equal. You can watch that at work, as already mentioned, in your local church—and you can also watch it at work in the innermost circles of power and privilege in American life.

Here in America, the top universities are the places where the latter version of the process stands out in all its dubious splendor. To these universities, every autumn, come the children of rich and influential families to begin the traditional four-year rite of passage. It would require something close to a superhuman effort on their part to fail. If they don’t fancy attending lectures, they can hire impecunious classmates as “note takers” to do that for them.  If they don’t wish to write papers, the same principle applies, and the classmates are more than ready to help out, since that can be the first step to a career as an executive assistant, speechwriter, or the like. The other requirements of college life can be met in the same manner as needed, and the university inevitably looks the other way, knowing that they can count on a generous donation from the parents as a reward for putting up with Junior’s antics.

Those of my readers who’ve read the novels of Thomas Mann, and recall the satiric portrait of central European minor royalty in Royal Highness, already know their way around the sort of life I’m discussing here. Those who don’t may want to recall everything they learned about the education and business career of George W. Bush. All the formal requirements are met, every gracious gesture is in place:  the diploma, the prestigious positions in business or politics or the stateside military, maybe a book written by one of those impecunious classmates turned ghostwriter and published to bland and favorable reviews in the newspapers of record:  it’s all there, and the only detail that nobody sees fit to mention is that the whole thing could be done just as well by a well-trained cockatiel, and much of it is well within the capacities of a department store mannequin—provided, of course, that one of those impecunious classmates stands close by, pulling the strings that make the hand wave and the head nod.

The impecunious classmates, for their part, are aspirants to the second category mentioned above, those who work their way into the elite from outside. They also come to the same top universities every autumn, but they don’t get there because of who their parents happen to be. They get there by devoting every spare second to that goal from middle school on. They take the right classes, get the right grades, play the right sports, pursue the right extracurricular activities, and rehearse for their entrance interviews by the hour; they are bright, earnest, amusing, pleasant, because they know that that’s what they need to be in order to get where they want to go. Scratch that glossy surface and you’ll find an anxious conformist terrified of failing to measure up to expectations, and it’s a reasonable terror—most of them will in fact fail to do that, and never know how or why.

Once in an Ivy League university or the equivalent, they’re pretty much guaranteed passing grades and a diploma unless they go out of their way to avoid them. Most of them, though, will be shunted off to midlevel posts in business, government, or one of the professions. Only the lucky few will catch the eye of someone with elite connections, and be gently nudged out of their usual orbit into a place from which further advancement is possible. Whether the rich kid whose exam papers you ghostwrote takes a liking to you, and arranges to have you hired as his executive assistant when he gets his first job out of school, or the father of a friend of a friend meets you on some social occasion, chats with you, and later on has the friend of a friend mention in passing that you might consider a job with this senator or that congressman, or what have you, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, not to mention how precisely you conform to the social and intellectual expectations of the people who have the power to give or withhold the prize you crave so desperately.

That’s how the governing elite of today’s America recruits new members. Mutatis mutandis, it’s how the governing elite of every stable, long-established society recruits new members. That procedure has significant advantages, and not just for the elites. Above all else, it provides stability. Over time, any elite self-selected in this fashion converges asymptotically on the standard model of a mature aristocracy, with an inner core of genial duffers surrounded by an outer circle of rigid conformists—the last people on the planet who are likely to disturb the settled calm of the social order. Like the lead-weighted keel of a deepwater sailboat, their inertia becomes a stabilizing force that only the harshest of tempests can overturn.

Inevitably, though, this advantage comes with certain disadvantages, two of which are of particular importance for our subject. The first is that stability and inertia are not necessarily a good thing in a time of crisis. In particular, if the society governed by an elite of the sort just described happens to depend for its survival on some unsustainable relationship with surrounding societies, the world of nature, or both, the leaden weight of a mature elite can make necessary change impossible until it’s too late for any change at all to matter. One of the most consistent results of the sort of selection process I’ve sketched out is the elimination of any tendency toward original thinking on the part of those selected; “creativity” may be lauded, but what counts as creativity in such a system consists solely of taking some piece of accepted conventional wisdom one very carefully measured step further than anyone else has quite gotten around to going yet.

In a time of drastic change, that sort of limitation is lethal. More deadly still is the other disadvantage I have in mind, which is the curious and consistent habit such elites have of blind faith in their own invincibility. The longer a given elite has been in power, and the more august and formal and well-aged the institutions of its power and wealth become, the easier it seems to be for the very rich to forget that their forefathers established themselves in that position by some form of more or less blatant piracy, and that they themselves could be deprived of it by that same means. Thus elites tend to, shall we say, “misunderestimate” exactly those crises and sources of conflict that pose an existential threat to the survival of their class and its institutions, precisely because they can’t imagine that an existential threat to these things could be posed by anything at all.

The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that the same conviction tends to become just as widespread outside elite circles as within it. The illusion of invincibility, the conviction that the existing order of things is impervious to any but the most cosmetic changes, tends to be pervasive in any mature society, and remains fixed in place right up to the moment that everything changes and the existing order of things is swept away forever. The intensity of the illusion very often has nothing to do with the real condition of the social order to which it applies; France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 were both brittle, crumbling, jerry-rigged hulks waiting for the push that would send them tumbling into oblivion, which they each received shortly thereafter—but next to no one saw the gaping vulnerabilities at the time. In both cases, even the urban rioters that applied the push were left standing there slack-jawed when they saw how readily the whole thing came crashing down.

The illusion of invincibility is far and away the most important asset a mature ruling elite has, because it discourages deliberate attempts at regime change from within. Everyone in the society, in the elite or outside it, assumes that the existing order is so firmly bolted into place that only the most apocalyptic events would be able to shake its grip. In such a context, most activists either beg for scraps from the tables of the rich or content themselves with futile gestures of hostility at a system they don’t seriously expect to be able to harm, while the members of the elite go their genial way, stumbling from one preventable disaster to another, convinced of the inevitability of their positions, and blissfully unconcerned with the possibility—which normally becomes a reality sooner or later—that their own actions might be sawing away at the old and brittle branch on which they’re seated.

If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you definitely need to get out more. The behavior of the holders of wealth and power in contemporary America, as already suggested, is a textbook example of the way that a mature elite turns senile. Consider the fact that the merry pranksters in the banking industry, having delivered a body blow to the global economy in 2008 and 2009 with worthless mortgage-backed securities, are now busy hawking equally worthless securities backed by income from rental properties. Each round of freewheeling financial fraud, each preventable economic slump, increases the odds that an already brittle, crumbling, and jerry-rigged system will crack under the strain, opening a window of opportunity that hostile foreign powers and domestic demagogues alike will not be slow to exploit. Do such considerations move the supposed defenders of the status quo to rein in the manufacture of worthless financial paper? Surely you jest.

It deserves to be said that at least one corner of the current American ruling elite has recently showed some faint echo of the hard common sense once possessed by its piratical forebears. Now of course the recent announcement that one of the Rockefeller charities is about to move some of its investment funds out of fossil fuel industries doesn’t actually justify the rapturous language lavished on it by activists; the amount of money being moved amounts to one tiny droplet in the overflowing bucket of Rockefeller wealth, after all.  For that matter, as the fracking industry founders under a soaring debt load and slumping petroleum prices warn of troubles ahead, pulling investment funds out of fossil fuel companies and putting them in industries that will likely see panic buying when the fracking bubble pops may be motivated by something other than a sudden outburst of environmental sensibility. Even so, it’s worth noting that the Rockefellers, at least, still remember that it’s crucial for elites to play to the audience, to convince those outside elite circles that the holders of wealth and power still have some vague sense of concern for the survival of the society they claim the right to lead.

Most members of America’s elite have apparently lost track of that. Even such modest gestures as the Rockefellers have just made seem to be outside the repertory of most of the wealthy and privileged these days.  Secure in their sense of their own invulnerability, they amble down the familiar road that led so many of their equivalents in past societies to dispossession or annihilation. How that pattern typically plays out will be the subject of next week’s post.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dark Age America: The End of the Old Order

Lately I’ve been rereading some of the tales of H.P. Lovecraft. He’s nearly unique among the writers of American horror stories, in that his sense of the terrible was founded squarely on the worldview of modern science. He was a steadfast atheist and materialist, but unlike so many believers in that creed, his attitude toward the cosmos revealed by science was not smug satisfaction but shuddering horror. The first paragraph of his most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is typical:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

It’s entirely possible that this insight of Lovecraft’s will turn out to be prophetic, and that a passionate popular revolt against the implications—and even more, the applications—of contemporary science will be one of the forces that propel us into the dark age ahead. Still, that’s a subject for a later post in this series. The point I want to make here is that Lovecraft’s image of people eagerly seeking such peace and safety as a dark age may provide them is not as ironic as it sounds. Outside the elites, which have a different and considerably more gruesome destiny than the other inhabitants of a falling civilization, it’s surprisingly rare for people to have to be forced to trade civilization for barbarism, either by human action or by the pressure of events.  By and large, by the time that choice arrives, the great majority are more than ready to make the exchange, and for good reason.

Let’s start by reviewing some basics. As I pointed out in a paper published online back in 2005—a PDF is available here—the process that drives the collapse of civilizations has a surprisingly simple basis: the mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources that are available to meet those costs. Capital here is meant in the broadest sense of the word, and includes everything in which a civilizations invests its wealth: buildings, roads, imperial expansion, urban infrastructure, information resources, trained personnel, or what have you. Capital of every kind has to be maintained, and as a civilization adds to its stock of capital, the costs of maintenance rise steadily, until the burden they place on the civilization’s available resources can’t be supported any longer.

The only way to resolve that conflict is to allow some of the capital to be converted to waste, so that its maintenance costs drop to zero and any useful resources locked up in the capital can be put to other uses. Human beings being what they are, the conversion of capital to waste generally isn’t carried out in a calm, rational manner; instead, kingdoms fall, cities get sacked, ruling elites are torn to pieces by howling mobs, and the like. If a civilization depends on renewable resources, each round of capital destruction is followed by a return to relative stability and the cycle begins all over again; the history of imperial China is a good example of how that works out in practice.

If a civilization depends on nonrenewable resources for essential functions, though, destroying some of its capital yields only a brief reprieve from the crisis of maintenance costs. Once the nonrenewable resource base tips over into depletion, there’s less and less available each year thereafter to meet the remaining maintenance costs, and the result is the stairstep pattern of decline and fall so familiar from history:  each crisis leads to a round of capital destruction, which leads to renewed stability, which gives way to crisis as the resource base drops further. Here again, human beings being what they are, this process isn’t carried out in a calm, rational manner; the difference here is simply that kingdoms keep falling, cities keep getting sacked, ruling elites are slaughtered one after another in ever more inventive and colorful ways, until finally contraction has proceeded far enough that the remaining capital can be supported on the available stock of renewable resources.

That’s a thumbnail sketch of the theory of catabolic collapse, the basic model of the decline and fall of civilizations that underlies the overall project of this blog. I’d encourage those who have questions about the details of the theory to go ahead and read the published version linked above; down the road a ways, I hope to publish a much more thoroughly developed version of the theory, but that project is still in the earliest stages just now. What I want to do here is to go a little more deeply into the social implications of the theory.

It’s common these days to hear people insist that our society is divided into two and only two classes, an elite class that receives all the benefits of the system, and everyone else, who bears all the burdens. The reality, in ours as in every other human society, is a great deal more nuanced. It’s true, of course, that the benefits move toward the top of the ladder of wealth and privilege and the burdens get shoved toward the bottom, but in most cases—ours very much included—you have to go a good long way down the ladder before you find people who receive no benefits at all.

There have admittedly been a few human societies in which most people receive only such benefits from the system as will enable them to keep working until they drop. The early days of plantation slavery in the United States and the Caribbean islands, when the average lifespan of a slave from purchase to death was under ten years, fell into that category, and so do a few others—for example, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. These are exceptional cases; they emerge when the cost of unskilled labor drops close to zero and either abundant profits or ideological considerations make the fate of the laborers a matter of complete indifference to their masters.

Under any other set of conditions, such arrangements are uneconomical. It’s more profitable, by and large, to allow such additional benefits to the laboring class as will permit them to survive and raise families, and to motivate them to do more than the bare minimum that will evade the overseer’s lash. That’s what generates the standard peasant economy, for example, in which the rural poor pay landowners in labor and a share of agricultural production for access to arable land.

There are any number of similar arrangements, in which the laboring classes do the work, the ruling classes allow them access to productive capital, and the results are divided between the two classes in a proportion that allows the ruling classes to get rich and the laboring classes to get by. If that sounds familiar, it should.  In terms of the distribution of labor, capital, and production, the latest offerings of today’s job market are indistinguishable from the arrangements between an ancient Egyptian landowner and the peasants who planted and harvested his fields.

The more complex a society becomes, the more intricate the caste system that divides it, and the more diverse the changes that are played on this basic scheme. A relatively simple medieval society might get by with four castes—the feudal Japanese model, which divided society into aristocrats, warriors, farmers, and a catchall category of traders, craftspeople, entertainers, and the like, is as good an example as any. A stable society near the end of a long age of expansion, by contrast, might have hundreds or even thousands of distinct castes, each with its own niche in the social and economic ecology of that society. In every case, each caste represents a particular balance between benefits received and burdens exacted, and given a stable economy entirely dependent on renewable resources, such a system can continue intact for a very long time.

Factor in the process of catabolic collapse, though, and an otherwise stable system turns into a fount of cascading instabilities. The point that needs to be grasped here is that social hierarchies are a form of capital, in the broad sense mentioned above. Like the other forms of capital included in the catabolic collapse model, social hierarchies facilitate the production and distribution of goods and services, and they have maintenance costs that have to be met. If the maintenance costs aren’t met, as with any other form of capital, social hierarchies are converted to waste; they stop fulfilling their economic function, and become available for salvage.

That sounds very straightforward. Here as so often, though, it’s the human factor that transforms it from a simple equation to the raw material of history.  As the maintenance costs of a civilization’s capital begin to mount up toward the point of crisis, corners get cut and malign neglect becomes the order of the day. Among the various forms of capital, though, some benefit people at one point on the ladder of social hierarchy more than people at other levels. As the maintenance budget runs short, people normally try to shield the forms of capital that benefit them directly, and push the cutbacks off onto forms of capital that benefit others instead. Since the ability of any given person to influence where resources go corresponds very precisely to that person’s position in the social hierarchy, this means that the forms of capital that benefit the people at the bottom of the ladder get cut first.

Now of course this isn’t what you hear from Americans today, and it’s not what you hear from people in any society approaching catabolic collapse. When contraction sets in, as I noted here in a post two weeks ago, people tend to pay much more attention to whatever they’re losing than to the even greater losses suffered by others. The middle-class Americans who denounce welfare for the poor at the top of their lungs while demanding that funding for Medicare and Social Security remain intact are par for the course; so, for that matter, are the other middle-class Americans who denounce the admittedly absurd excesses of the so-called 1% while carefully neglecting to note the immense differentials of wealth and privilege that separate them from those still further down the ladder.

This sort of thing is inevitable in a fight over slices of a shrinking pie. Set aside the inevitable partisan rhetoric, though, and a society moving into the penumbra of catabolic collapse is a society in which more and more people are receiving less and less benefit from the existing order of society, while being expected to shoulder an ever-increasing share of the costs of a faltering system. To those who receive little or no benefits in return, the maintenance costs of social capital rapidly become an intolerable burden, and as the supply of benefits still available from a faltering system becomes more and more a perquisite of the upper reaches of the social hierarchy, that burden becomes an explosive political fact.

Every society depends for its survival on the passive acquiescence of the majority of the population and the active support of a large minority. That minority—call them the overseer class—are the people who operate the mechanisms of social hierarchy: the bureaucrats, media personnel, police, soldiers, and other functionaries who are responsible for maintaining social order. They are not drawn from the ruling elite; by and large, they come from the same classes they are expected to control; and if their share of the benefits of the existing order falters, if their share of the burdens increases too noticeably, or if they find other reasons to make common cause with those outside the overseer class against the ruling elite, then the ruling elite can expect to face the brutal choice between flight into exile and a messy death. The mismatch between maintenance costs and available resources, in turn, makes some such turn of events extremely difficult to avoid.

A ruling elite facing a crisis of this kind has at least three available options. The first, and by far the easiest, is to ignore the situation. In the short term, this is actually the most economical option; it requires the least investment of scarce resources and doesn’t require potentially dangerous tinkering with fragile social and political systems. The only drawback is that once the short term runs out, it pretty much guarantees a horrific fate for the members of the ruling elite, and in many cases, this is a less convincing argument than one might think. It’s always easy to find an ideology that insists that things will turn out otherwise, and since members of a ruling elite are generally well insulated from the unpleasant realities of life in the society over which they preside, it’s usually just as easy for them to convince themselves of the validity of whatever ideology they happen to choose. The behavior of the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the French Revolution is worth consulting in this context.

The second option is to try to remedy the situation by increased repression. This is the most expensive option, and it’s generally even less effective than the first, but ruling elites with a taste for jackboots tend to fall into the repression trap fairly often. What makes repression a bad choice is that it does nothing to address the sources of the problems it attempts to suppress. Furthermore, it increases the maintenance costs of social hierarchy drastically—secret police, surveillance gear, prison camps, and the like don’t come cheap—and it enforces the lowest common denominator of passive obedience while doing much to discourage active engagement of people outside the elite in the project of saving the society.  A survey of the fate of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe is a good antidote to the delusion that an elite with enough spies and soldiers can stay in power indefinitely.

That leaves the third option, which requires the ruling elite to sacrifice some of its privileges and perquisites so that those further down the social ladder still have good reason to support the existing order of society. That isn’t common, but it does happen; it happened in the United States as recently as the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt spearheaded changes that spared the United States the sort of fascist takeover or civil war that occurred in so many other failed democracies in the same era. Roosevelt and his allies among the very rich realized that fairly modest reforms would be enough to comvince most Americans that they had more to gain from supporting the system than they would gain by overthrowing it.  A few job-creation projects and debt-relief measures, a few welfare programs, and a few perp walks by the most blatant of the con artists of the preceding era of high finance, were enough to stop the unraveling of the social hierarchy, and restore a sense of collective unity strong enough to see the United States through a global war in the following decade.

Now of course Roosevelt and his allies had huge advantages that any comparable project would not be able to duplicate today. In 1933, though it was hamstrung by a collapsed financial system and a steep decline in international trade, the economy of the United States still had the world’s largest and most productive industrial plant and some of the world’s richest deposits of petroleum, coal, and many other natural resources. Eighty years later, the industrial plant was abandoned decades ago in an orgy of offshoring motivated by short-term profit-seeking, and nearly every resource the American land once offered in abundance has been mined and pumped right down to the dregs. That means that an attempt to imitate Roosevelt’s feat under current conditions would face much steeper obstacles, and it would also require the ruling elite to relinquish a much greater share of its current perquisites and privileges than they did in Roosevelt’s day.

I could be mistaken, but I don’t think it will even be tried this time around. Just at the moment, the squabbling coterie of competing power centers that constitutes the ruling elite of the United States seems committed to an approach halfway between the first two options I’ve outlined. The militarization of US domestic police forces and the rising spiral of civil rights violations carried out with equal enthusiasm by both mainstream political parties fall on the repressive side of the scale.  At the same time, for all these gestures in the direction of repression, the overall attitude of American politicians and financiers seems to be that nothing really that bad can actually happen to them or the system that provides them with their power and their wealth.

They’re wrong, and at this point it’s probably a safe bet that a great many of them will die because of that mistake. Already, a large fraction of Americans—probably a majority—accept the continuation of the existing order of society in the United States only because a viable alternative has yet to emerge. As the United States moves closer to catabolic collapse, and the burden of propping up an increasingly dysfunctional status quo bears down ever more intolerably on more and more people outside the narrowing circle of wealth and privilege, the bar that any alternative has to leap will be set lower and lower. Sooner or later, something will make that leap and convince enough people that there’s a workable alternative to the status quo, and the passive acquiescence on which the system depends for its survival will no longer be something that can be taken for granted.

It’s not necessary for such an alternative to be more democratic or more humane than the order that it attempts to replace. It can be considerably less so, so long as it imposes fewer costs on the majority of people and distributes benefits more widely than the existing order does. That’s why, in the last years of Rome, so many people of the collapsing empire so readily accepted the rule of barbarian warlords in place of the imperial government. That government had become hopelessly dysfunctional by the time of the barbarian invasions, centralizing authority in distant bureaucratic centers out of touch with current realities and imposing tax burdens on the poor so crushing that many people were forced to sell themselves into slavery or flee to depopulated regions of the countryside to take up the uncertain life of Bacaudae, half guerrilla and half bandit, hunted by imperial troops whenever those had time to spare from the defense of the frontiers.

By contrast, the local barbarian warlord might be brutal and capricious, but he was there on the scene, and thus unlikely to exhibit the serene detachment from reality so common in centralized bureaucratic states at the end of their lives. What’s more, the warlord had good reason to protect the peasants who put bread and meat on his table, and the cost of supporting him and his retinue in the relatively modest style of barbarian kingship was considerably less expensive than the burden of helping to prop up the baroque complexities of the late Roman imperial bureaucracy. That’s why the peasants and agricultural slaves of the late Roman world acquiesced so calmly in the implosion of Rome and its replacement by a patchwork of petty kingdoms. It wasn’t just that it was merely a change of masters; it was that in a great many cases, the new masters were considerably less of a burden than the old ones had been.

We can expect much the same process to unfold in North America as the United States passes through its own trajectory of decline and fall. Before tracing the ways that process might work out, though, it’s going to be necessary to sort through some common misconceptions, and that requires us to examine the ways that ruling elites destroy themselves. We’ll cover that next week.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Technological Superstitions

I'd meant to go straight on from last week’s post about völkerwanderung and the dissolution and birth of ethnic identities in dark age societies, and start talking about the mechanisms by which societies destroy themselves—with an eye, of course, to the present example. Still, as I’ve noted here more than once, there are certain complexities involved in the project of discussing the decline and fall of civilizations in a civilization that’s hard at work on its own decline and fall, and one of those complexities is the way that tempting examples of the process keep popping up as we go.

The last week or so has been unusually full of those. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has continued to spread at an exponential rate as hopelessly underfunded attempts to contain it crumple, while the leaders of the world’s industrial nations distract themselves playing geopolitics in blithe disregard of the very real possibility that their inattention may be helping to launch the next great global pandemic.  In other news—tip of the archdruidical hat here to The Daily Impact—companies and investors who have been involved in the fracking bubble are quietly bailing out. If things continue on their current trajectory, as I’ve noted before, this autumn could very well see the fracking boom go bust; it’s anyone’s guess how heavily that will hit the global economy, but fracking-related loans and investments have accounted for a sufficiently large fraction of Wall Street profits in recent years that the crater left by a fracking bust will likely be large and deep. 

Regular readers of this blog already know, though, that it’s most often the little things that catch my attention, and the subject of this week’s post is no exception. Thus I’m pleased to announce that a coterie of scientists and science fiction writers has figured out what’s wrong with the world today: there are, ahem, too many negative portrayals of the future in popular media. To counter this deluge of unwarranted pessimism, they’ve organized a group called Project Hieroglyph, and published an anthology of new, cheery, upbeat SF stories about marvelous new technologies that could become realities within the next fifty years. That certainly ought to do the trick!

Now of course I’m hardly in a position to discourage anyone from putting together a science fiction anthology around an unpopular theme. After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, the anthology that resulted from the first Space Bats challenge here in 2011, is exactly that, and two similar anthologies from this blog’s second Space Bats challenge are going through the editing and publishing process as I write these words. That said, I’d question the claim that those three anthologies will somehow cause the planet’s oil reserves to run dry any faster than they otherwise will.

The same sort of skepticism, I suggest, may be worth applying to Project Hieroglyph and its anthology.  The contemporary  crisis of industrial society isn’t being caused by a lack of optimism; its roots go deep into the tough subsoil of geological and thermodynamic reality, to the lethal mismatch between fantasies of endless economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, and to the less immediately deadly but even more pervasive mismatch between fantasies of perpetual technological progress and that nemesis of all linear thinking, the law of diminishing returns.  The failure of optimism that these writers are bemoaning is a symptom rather than a cause, and insisting that the way to solve our problems is to push optimistic notions about the future at people is more than a little like deciding that the best way to deal with flashing red warning lights on the control panel of an airplane is to put little pieces of opaque green tape over them so everything looks fine again.

It’s not as though there’s been a shortage of giddily optimistic visions of a gizmocentric future in recent years, after all. I grant that the most colorful works of imaginative fiction we’ve seen of late have come from those economists and politicians who keep insisting that the only way out of our current economic and social malaise is to do even more of the same things that got us into it. That said, any of my readers who step into a bookstore or a video store and look for something that features interstellar travel or any of the other shibboleths of the contemporary cult of progress won’t have to work hard to find one. What’s happened, rather, is that such things are no longer as popular as they once were, because people find that stories about bleaker futures hedged in with harsh limits are more to their taste.

The question that needs to be asked, then, is why this should be the case. As I see it, there are at least three very good reasons.

First, those bleaker futures and harsh limits reflect the realities of life in contemporary America. Set aside the top twenty per cent of the population by income, and Americans have on average seen their standard of living slide steadily downhill for more than four decades. In 1970, to note just one measure of how far things have gone, an American family with one working class salary could afford to buy a house, pay all their bills on time, put three square meals on the table every day, and still have enough left over for the occasional vacation or high-ticket luxury item. Now? In much of today’s America, a single working class salary isn’t enough to keep a family off the streets.

That history of relentless economic decline has had a massive impact on attitudes toward the future, toward science, and toward technological progress. In 1969, it was only in the ghettos where America confined its urban poor that any significant number of people responded to the Apollo moon landing with the sort of disgusted alienation that Gil Scott-Heron expressed memorably in his furious ballad “Whitey on the Moon.”  Nowadays, a much greater number of Americans—quite possibly a majority—see the latest ballyhooed achievements of science and technology as just one more round of pointless stunts from which they won’t benefit in the least.

It’s easy but inaccurate to insist that they’re mistaken in that assessment. Outside the narrowing circle of the well-to-do, many Americans these days spend more time coping with the problems caused by technologies than they do enjoying the benefits thereof. Most of the jobs eliminated by automation, after all, used to provide gainful employment for the poor; most of the localities that are dumping grounds for toxic waste, similarly, are inhabited by people toward the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, and so on down the list of unintended consequences and technological blowback. By and large, the benefits of new technology trickle up the social ladder, while the costs and burdens trickle down; this has a lot to do with the fact that the grandchildren of people who enjoyed The Jetsons now find The Hunger Games more to their taste.

That’s the first reason. The second is that for decades now, the great majority of the claims made about wonderful new technologies that would inevitably become part of our lives in the next few decades have turned out to be dead wrong. From jetpacks and flying cars to domed cities and vacations on the Moon, from the nuclear power plants that would make electricity too cheap to meter to the conquest of poverty, disease, and death itself, most of the promises offered by the propagandists and publicists of technological progress haven’t happened. That has understandably made people noticeably less impressed by further rounds of promises that likely won’t come true either.

When I was a child, if I may insert a personal reflection here, one of my favorite books was titled You Will Go To The Moon. I suspect most American of my generation remember that book, however dimly, with its glossy portrayal of what space travel would be like in the near future: the great conical rocket with its winged upper stage, the white doughnut-shaped space station turning in orbit, and the rest of it. I honestly expected to make that trip someday, and I was encouraged in that belief by a chorus of authoritative voices for whom permanent space stations, bases on the Moon, and a manned landing on Mars were a done deal by the year 2000.

Now of course in those days the United States still had a manned space program capable of putting bootprints on the Moon. We don’t have one of those any more. It’s worth talking about why that is, because the same logic applies equally well to most of the other grand technological projects that were proclaimed not so long ago as the inescapable path to a shiny new future.

We don’t have a manned space program any more, to begin with, because the United States is effectively bankrupt, having committed itself in the usual manner to the sort of imperial overstretch chronicled by Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and cashed in its future for a temporary supremacy over most of the planet. That’s the unmentionable subtext behind the disintegration of America’s infrastructure and built environment, the gutting of its once-mighty industrial plant, and a good deal of the steady decline in standards of living mentioned earlier in this post. Britain dreamed about expansion into space when it still had an empire—the British Interplanetary Society was a major presence in space-travel advocacy in the first half of the twentieth century—and shelved those dreams when its empire went away; the United States is in the process of the same retreat. Still, there’s more going on here than this.

Another reason we don’t have a manned space program any more is that all those decades of giddy rhetoric about New Worlds For Man never got around to discussing the difference between technical feasibility and economic viability. The promoters of space travel fell into the common trap of believing their own hype, and convinced themselves that orbital factories, mines on the Moon, and the like would surely turn out to be paying propositions. What they forgot, of course, is what I’ve called the biosphere dividend:  the vast array of goods and services that the Earth’s natural cycles provide for human beings free of charge, which have to be paid for anywhere else. The best current estimate for the value of that dividend, from a 1997 paper in Science written by a team headed by Richard Constanza, is that it’s something like three times the total value of all goods and services produced by human beings.

As a very rough estimate, in other words, economic activity anywhere in the solar system other than Earth will cost around four times what it costs on Earth, even apart from transportation costs, because the services provided here for free by the biosphere have to be paid for in space or on the solar system’s other worlds. That’s why all the talk about space as a new economic frontier went nowhere; orbital manufacturing was tried—the Skylab program of the 1970s, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station in its early days all featured experiments along those lines—and the modest advantages of freefall and ready access to hard vacuum didn’t make enough of a difference to offset the costs. Thus manned space travel, like commercial supersonic aircraft, nuclear power plants, and plenty of other erstwhile waves of the future, turned into a gargantuan white elephant that could only be supported so long as massive and continuing government subsidies were forthcoming.

Those are two of the reasons why we don’t have a manned space program any more. The third is less tangible but, I suspect, far and away the most important. It can be tracked by picking up any illustrated book about the solar system that was written before we got there, and comparing what outer space and other worlds were supposed to look like with what was actually waiting for our landers and probes.

I have in front of me right now, for example, a painting of a scene on the Moon in a book published the year I was born. It’s a gorgeous, romantic view. Blue earthlight splashes over a crater in the foreground; further off, needle-sharp mountains catch the sunlight; the sky is full of brilliant stars. Too bad that’s not what the Apollo astronauts found when they got there. Nobody told the Moon it was supposed to cater to human notions of scenic grandeur, and so it presented its visitors with vistas of dull gray hillocks and empty plains beneath a flat black sky. To anybody but a selenologist, the one thing worth attention in that dreary scene was the glowing blue sphere of Earth 240,000 miles away.

For an even stronger contrast, consider the pictures beamed back by the first Viking probe from the surface of Mars in 1976, and compare that to the gaudy images of the Sun’s fourth planet that were in circulation in popular culture up to that time. I remember the event tolerably well, and one of the things I remember most clearly is the pervasive sense of disappointment—of “is that all?”—shared by everyone in the room.  The images from the lander didn’t look like Barsoom, or the arid but gorgeous setting of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, or any of the other visions of Mars everyone in 1970s America had tucked away in their brains; they looked for all of either world like an unusually dull corner of Nevada that had somehow been denuded of air, water, and life.

Here again, the proponents of space travel fell into the trap of believing their own hype, and forgot that science fiction is no more about real futures than romance novels are about real relationships. That isn’t a criticism of science fiction, by the way, though I suspect the members of Project Hieroglyph will take it as one. Science fiction is a literature of ideas, not of crass realities, and it evokes the sense of wonder that is its distinctive literary effect by dissolving the barrier between the realistic and the fantastic. What too often got forgotten, though, is that literary effects don’t guarantee the validity of prophecies—they’re far more likely to hide the flaws of improbable claims behind a haze of emotion.

Romance writers don’t seem to have much trouble recognizing that their novels are not about the real world. Science fiction, by contrast, has suffered from an overdeveloped sense of its own importance for many years now. I’m thinking just now of a typical essay by Isaac Asimov that described science fiction writers as scouts for the onward march of humanity. (Note the presuppositions that humanity is going somewhere, that all of it’s going in a single direction, and that this direction just happens to be defined by the literary tastes of an eccentric subcategory of 20th century popular fiction.) That sort of thinking led too many people in the midst of the postwar boom to forget that the universe is under no obligation to conform to our wholly anthropocentric notions of human destiny and provide us with New Worlds for Man just because we happen to want some.

Mutatis mutandis, that’s what happened to most of the other grand visions of transformative technological progress that were proclaimed so enthusiastically over the last century or so. Most of them never happened, and those that did turned out to be far less thrilling and far more problematic than the advance billing insisted they would be. Faced with that repeated realization, a great many Americans decided—and not without reason—that more of the same gosh-wow claims were not of interest. That shifted public taste away from cozy optimism toward a harsher take on our future.

The third factor driving that shift in taste, though, may be the most important of all, and it’s also one of the most comprehensively tabooed subjects in contemporary life. Most human phenomena are subject to the law of diminishing returns; the lesson that contemporary industrial societies are trying their level best not to learn just now is that technological progress is one of the phenomena to which this law applies. Thus there can be such a thing as too much technology, and a very strong case can be made that in the world’s industrial nations, we’ve already gotten well past that point.

In a typically cogent article, economist Herman Daly sorts our the law of diminishing returns into three interacting processes. The first is diminishing marginal utility—that is, the more of anything you have, the less any additional increment of that thing contributes to your wellbeing. If you’re hungry, one sandwich is a very good thing; two is pleasant; three is a luxury; and somewhere beyond that, when you’ve given sandwiches to all your coworkers, the local street people, and anyone else you can find, more sandwiches stop being any use to you. When more of anything  no longers bring any additional benefit, you’ve reached the point of futility, at which further increments are a waste of time and resources.

Well before that happens, though, two other factors come into play. First, it costs you almost nothing to cope with one sandwich, and very little more to cope with two or three. After that you start having to invest time, and quite possibly resources, in dealing with all those sandwiches, and each additional sandwich adds to the total burden. Economists call that increasing marginal disutility—that is, the more of anything you have, the more any additional increment of that thing is going to cost you, in one way or another. Somewhere in there, too, there’s the impact that dealing with those sandwiches has on your ability to deal with other things you need to do; that’s increasing risk of whole-system disruption—the more of anything you have, the more likely it is that an additional increment of that thing is going to disrupt the wider system in which you exist.

Next to nobody wants to talk about the way that technological progress has already passed the point of diminishing returns: that the marginal utility of each new round of technology is dropping fast, the marginal disutility is rising at least as fast, and whole-system disruptions driven by technology are becoming an inescapable presence in everyday life. Still, I’ve come to think that an uncomfortable awareness of that fact is becoming increasingly common these days, however subliminal that awareness may be, and beginning to have an popular culture among many other things. If you’re in a hole, as the saying goes, the first thing to do is stop digging; if a large and growing fraction of your society’s problems are being caused by too much technology applied with too little caution, similarly, it’s not exactly helpful to insist that applying even more technology with even less skepticism about its consequences is the only possible answer to those problems.

There’s a useful word for something that remains stuck in a culture after the conditions that once made it relevant have passed away, and that word is “superstition.” I’d like to suggest that the faith-based claims that more technology is always better than less, that every problem must have a technological solution, and that technology always solves more problems than it creates, are among the prevailing superstitions of our time. I’d also like to suggest that, comforting and soothing as those superstitions may be, it’s high time we outgrow them and deal with the world as it actually is—a world in which yet another helping of faith-based optimism is far from useful.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Dark Age America: The Cauldron of Nations

It's one thing to suggest, as I did in last week’s post here, that North America a few centuries from now might have something like five per cent of its current population. It’s quite another thing to talk about exactly whose descendants will comprise that five per cent. That’s what I intend to do this week, and yes, I know that raising that issue is normally a very good way to spark a shouting match in which who-did-what-to-whom rhetoric plays its usual role in drowning out everything else.

Now of course there’s a point to talking about, and learning from, the abuses inflicted by groups of people on other groups of people over the last five centuries or so of North American history.  Such discussions, though, have very little to offer the topic of the current series of posts here on The Archdruid Report.  History may be a source of moral lessons but it’s not a moral phenomenon; a glance back over our past shows clearly enough that who won, who lost, who ended up ruling a society, and who ended up enslaved or exterminated by that same society, was not determined by moral virtue or by the justice of one or another cause, but by the crassly pragmatic factors of military, political, and economic power. No doubt most of us would rather live in a world that didn’t work that way, but here we are, and morality remains a matter of individual choices—yours and mine—in the face of a cosmos that seems sublimely unconcerned with our moral beliefs.

Thus we can take it for granted that just as the borders that currently divide North America were put there by force or the threat of force, the dissolution of those borders and their replacement with new lines of division will happen the same way. For that matter, it’s a safe bet that the social divisions—ethnic and otherwise—of the successor cultures that emerge in the aftermath of our downfall will be established and enforced by means no more just or fair than the ones that currently distribute wealth and privilege to the different social and ethnic strata in today’s North American nations. Again, it would be pleasant to live in a world where that isn’t true, but we don’t.

I apologize to any of my readers who are offended or upset by these points. In order to make any kind of sense of the way that civilizations fall—and more to the point, the way that ours is currently falling—it’s essential to get past the belief that history is under any obligation to hand out rewards for good behavior and punishments for the opposite, or for that matter the other way around. Over the years and decades and centuries ahead of us, as industrial civilization crumbles, a great many people who believe with all their hearts that their cause is right and just are going to die anyway, and there will be no shortage of brutal, hateful, vile individuals who claw their way to the top—for a while, at least. One of the reliable features of dark ages is that while they last, the top of the heap is a very unsafe place to be.

North America being what it is today, a great many people considering the sort of future I’ve just sketched out immediately start thinking about the potential for ethnic conflict, especially but not only in the United States. It’s an issue worth discussing, and not only for the currently obvious reasons. Conflict between ethnic groups is quite often a major issue in the twilight years of a civilization, for reasons we’ll discuss shortly, but it’s also self-terminating, for an interesting reason: traditional ethnic divisions don’t survive dark ages. In an age of political dissolution, economic implosion, social chaos, demographic collapse, and mass migration, the factors that maintain established ethnic divisions in place don’t last long. In their place, new ethnicities emerge.  It’s a commonplace of history that dark ages are the cauldron from which nations are born.

So we have three stages, which overlap to a greater or lesser degree: a stage of ethnic conflict, a stage of ethnic dissolution, and a stage of ethnogenesis. Let’s take them one at a time.

The stage of ethnic conflict is one effect of the economic contraction that’s inseparable from the decline of a civilization.  If a rising tide lifts all boats, as economists of the trickle-down school used to insist, a falling tide has a much more differentiated effect, since each group in a declining society does its best to see to it that as much as possible of the costs of decline land on someone else.  Since each group’s access to wealth and privilege determines fairly exactly how much influence it has on the process, it’s one of the constants of decline and fall that the costs and burdens of decline trickle down, landing with most force on those at the bottom of the pyramid.

That heats up animosities across the board: between ethnic groups, between regions, between political and religious divisions, you name it. Since everyone below the uppermost levels of wealth and power loses some of what they’ve come to expect, and since it’s human nature to pay more attention to what you’ve lost than to the difference between what you’ve retained and what someone worse off than you has to make do with, everyone’s aggrieved, and everyone sees any attempt by someone else to better their condition as a threat. That’s by no means entirely inaccurate—if the pie’s shrinking, any attempt to get a wider slice has to come at somebody else’s expense—but it fans the flames of conflict even further, helping to drive the situation toward the inevitable explosions.

One very common and very interesting feature of this process is that the increase in ethnic tensions tend to parallel a process of ethnic consolidation. In the United States a century ago, for example, the division of society by ethnicity wasn’t anything so like as simple as it is today. The uppermost caste in most of the country wasn’t simply white, it was white male Episcopalians whose ancestors got here from northwestern Europe before the Revolutionary War. Irish ranked below Germans but above Italians, who looked down on Jews, and so on down the ladder to the very bottom, which was occupied by either African-Americans or Native Americans depending on locality. Within any given ethnicity, furthermore, steep social divisions existed, microcosms of a hierarchically ordered macrocosm; gender distinctions and a great many other lines of fracture combined with the ethnic divisions just noted to make American society in 1914 as intricately caste-ridden as any culture on the planet.

The partial dissolution of many of these divisions has resulted inevitably in the hardening of those that remain. That’s a common pattern, too: consider the way that the rights of Roman citizenship expanded step by step from the inhabitants of the city of Rome itself, to larger and larger fractions of the people it dominated, until finally every free adult male in the Empire was a Roman citizen by definition. Parallel to that process came a hardening of the major divisions, between free persons and slaves on the one hand, and between citizens of the Empire and the barbarians outside its borders on the other. The result was the same in that case as it is in ours: traditional, parochial jealousies and prejudices focused on people one step higher or lower on the ladder of caste give way to new loyalties and hatreds uniting ever greater fractions of the population into increasingly large and explosive masses.

The way that this interlocks with the standard mechanisms of decline and fall will be a central theme of future posts. The crucial detail, though, is that a society riven by increasingly bitter divisions of the sort just sketched out is very poorly positioned to deal with external pressure or serious crisis. “Divide and conquer,” the Romans liked to say during the centuries of their power:  splitting up their enemies and crushing them one at a time was the fundamental strategy they used to build their empire. On the way down, though, it was the body of Roman society that did the dividing, tearing itself apart along every available line of schism, and Rome was accordingly conquered in its turn. That’s usual for falling civilizations, and we’re well along the same route in the United States today.

Ethnic divisions thus routinely play a significant role in the crash of civilizations. Still, as noted above, the resulting chaos quickly shreds the institutional arrangements that make ethnic divisions endure in a settled society. Charismatic leaders emerge out of the chaos, and those that are capable of envisioning and forming alliances across ethnic lines succeed where their rivals fail; the reliable result is a chaotic melting pot of armed bands and temporary communities drawn from all available sources. When the Huns first came west from the Eurasian steppes around 370 CE, for example, they were apparently a federation of related Central Asian tribes; by the time of Attila, rather less than a century later, his vast armies included warriors from most of the ethnic groups of eastern Europe. We don’t even know what their leader’s actual name was; “Attila” was a nickname—“Daddy”—in Visigothic, the lingua franca among the eastern barbarians at that time.

The same chaotic reshuffling was just as common on the other side of the collapsing Roman frontiers. The province of Britannia, for instance, had long been divided into ethnic groups with their own distinct religious and cultural traditions. In the wake of the Roman collapse and the Saxon invasions, the survivors who took refuge in the mountains of the west forgot the old divisions, and took to calling themselves by a new name:  Combrogi, “fellow-countrymen” in old Brythonic. Nowadays that’s Cymry, the name the Welsh use for themselves.  Not everyone who ended up as Combrogi was British by ancestry—one of the famous Welsh chieftains in the wars against the Saxons was a Visigoth named Theodoric—nor were all the people on the other side Saxons—one of the leaders of the invaders was a Briton named Caradoc ap Cunorix,  the “Cerdic son of Cynric” of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the efficiency of the blender into which every political, economic, social, and ethnic manifestation got tossed in the last years of Rome. My favorite example of the raw confusion of that time is the remarkable career of another Saxon leader named Odoacer. He was the son of one of Attila the Hun’s generals, but got involved in Saxon raids on Britain after Attila’s death. Sometime in the 460s, when the struggle between the Britons and the Saxons was more or less stuck in deadlock, Odoacer decided to look for better pickings elsewhere, and led a Saxon fleet that landed at the mouth of the Loire in western France. For the next decade or so, more or less in alliance with Childeric, king of the Franks, he fought the Romans, the Goths, and the Bretons there.

When the Saxon hold on the Loire was finally broken, Odoacer took the remains of his force and joined Childeric in an assault on Italy. No records survive of the fate of that expedition, but it apparently didn’t go well. Odoacer next turned up, without an army, in what’s now Austria and was then the province of Noricum. It took him only a short time to scrape together a following from the random mix of barbarian warriors to be found there, and in 476 he marched on Italy again, and overthrew the equally random mix of barbarians who had recently seized control of the peninsula. 

The Emperor of the West just then, the heir of the Caesars and titular lord of half the world, was a boy named Romulus Augustulus. In a fine bit of irony, he also happened to be the son of Attila the Hun’s Greek secretary, a sometime ally of Odoacer’s father. This may be why, instead of doing the usual thing and having the boy killed, Odoacer basically told the last Emperor of Rome to run along and play.  That sort of clemency was unusual, and it wasn’t repeated by the next barbarian warlord in line; fourteen years later Odoacer was murdered by order of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, who proceeded to take his place as temporary master of the corpse of imperial Rome.

Soldiers of fortune, or of misfortune for that matter, weren’t the only people engaged in this sort of heavily armed tour of the post-Roman world during those same years. Entire nations were doing the same thing. Those of my readers who have been watching North America’s climate come unhinged may be interested to know that severe droughts in Central Asia may have been the trigger that kickstarted the process, pushing nomadic tribes out of their traditional territories in a desperate quest for survival. Whether or not that’s what pushed the Huns into motion, the westward migration of the Huns forced other barbarian peoples further west to flee for their lives, and the chain of dominoes thus set in motion played a massive role in creating the chaos in which figures like Odoacer rose and fell. It’s a measure of the sheer scale of these migrations that before Rome started to topple, many of the ancestors of today’s Spaniards lived in what’s now the Ukraine.

And afterwards? The migrations slowed and finally stopped, the warlords became kings, and the people who found themselves in some more or less stable kingdom began the slow process by which a random assortment of refugees and military veterans from the far corners of the Roman world became the first draft of a nation. The former province of Britannia, for example, became seven Saxon kingdoms and a varying number of Celtic ones, and then began the slow process of war and coalescence out of which England, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall gradually emerged. Elsewhere, the same process moved at varying rates; new nations, languages, ethnic groups came into being. The cauldron of nations had come off the boil, and the history of Europe settled down to a somewhat less frenetic rhythm.

I’ve used post-Roman Europe as a convenient and solidly documented example, but transformations of the same kind are commonplace whenever a civilization goes down. The smaller and more isolated the geographical area of the civilization that falls, the less likely mass migrations are—ancient China, Mesopotamia, and central Mexico had plenty of them, while the collapse of the classic Maya and Heian Japan featured a shortage of wandering hordes—but the rest of the story is among the standard features you get with societal collapse. North America is neither small nor isolated, and so it’s a safe bet that we’ll get a tolerably complete version of the usual process right here in the centuries ahead.

What does that mean in practice? It means, to begin with, that a rising spiral of conflict along ethnic, cultural, religious, political, regional, and social lines will play an ever larger role in North American life for decades to come. Those of my readers who have been paying attention to events, especially but not only in the United States, will have already seen that spiral getting under way. As the first few rounds of economic contraction have begun to bite, the standard response of every group you care to name has been to try to get the bite taken out of someone else. Listen to the insults being flung around in the political controversies of the present day—the thieving rich, the shiftless poor, and the rest of it—and notice how many of them amount to claims that wealth that ought to belong to one group of people is being unfairly held by another. In those claims, you can hear the first whispers of the battle-cries that will be shouted as the usual internecine wars begin to tear our civilization apart.

As those get under way, for reasons we’ll discuss at length in future posts, governments and the other institutions of civil society will come apart at the seams, and the charismatic leaders already mentioned will rise to fill their place. In response, existing loyalties will begin to dissolve as the normal process of warband formation kicks into overdrive. In such times a strong and gifted leader like Attila the Hun can unite any number of contending factions into a single overwhelming force, but at this stage such things have no permanence; once the warlord dies, ages, or runs out of luck, the forces so briefly united will turn on each other and plunge the continent back into chaos.

There will also be mass migrations, and far more likely than not these will be on a scale that would have impressed Attila himself. That’s one of the ways that the climate change our civilization has unleashed on the planet is a gift that just keeps on giving; until the climate settles back down to some semblance of stability, and sea levels have risen as far as they’re going to rise, people in vulnerable areas are going to be forced out of their homes by one form of unnatural catastrophe or another, and the same desperate quest for survival that may have sent the Huns crashing into Eastern Europe will send new hordes of refugees streaming across the landscape. Some of those hordes will have starting points within the United States—I expect mass migrations from Florida as the seas rise, and from the Southwest as drought finishes tightening its fingers around the Sun Belt’s throat—while others will come from further afield.

Five centuries from now, as a result, it’s entirely possible that most people in the upper Mississippi valley will be of Brazilian ancestry, and the inhabitants of the Hudson’s Bay region sing songs about their long-lost homes in drowned Florida, while languages descended from English may be spoken only in a region extending from New England to the isles of deglaciated Greenland. Nor will these people think of themselves in any of the national and ethnic terms that come so readily to our minds today. It’s by no means impossible that somebody may claim to be Presden of Meriga, Meer of Kanda, or what have you, just as Charlemagne and his successors claimed to be the emperors of Rome. Just as the Holy Roman Empire was proverbially neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, neither the office nor the nation at that future time is likely to have much of anything to do with its nominal equivalent today—and there will certainly be nations and ethnic groups in that time that have no parallel today.

One implication of these points may be worth noting here, as we move deeper into the stage of ethnic conflict. No matter what your ethnic group, dear reader, no matter how privileged or underprivileged it may happen to be in today’s world, it will almost certainly no longer exist as such when industrial civilization on this continent finishes the arc of the Long Descent. Such of your genes as make it through centuries of dieoff and ruthless Darwinian selection will be mixed with genes from many other nationalities and corners of the world, and it’s probably a safe bet that the people who carry those genes won’t call themselves by whatever label you call yourself. When a civilization falls the way ours is falling, that’s how things generally go.

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In other news, I’m delighted to announce that my latest book, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, a novel based on the five-part scenario of US imperial collapse and dissolution posted here in 2012, will be hitting the bookshelves on October 31 of this year. Those of my readers who are interested may like to know that the publisher, Karnac Books, is offering a discount and free worldwide shipping on preorders. Those posts still hold this blog’s all-time record for page views, and the novel’s just as stark and fast-paced as the original posts; those of my readers who enjoy a good political-military thriller might want to check it out.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dark Age America: The Population Implosion

The three environmental shifts discussed in earlier posts in this sequence—the ecological impacts of a sharply warmer and dryer climate, the flooding of coastal regions due to rising sea levels, and the long-term consequences of industrial America’s frankly brainless dumping of persistent radiological and chemical poisons—all involve changes to the North American continent that will endure straight through the deindustrial dark age ahead, and will help shape the history of the successor cultures that will rise amid our ruins. For millennia to come, the peoples of North America will have to contend with drastically expanded deserts, coastlines that in some regions will be many miles further inland than they are today, and the presence of dead zones where nuclear or chemical wastes in the soil and water make human settlement impossible.

All these factors mean, among other things, that deindustrial North America will support many fewer people than it did in 1880 or so, before new agricultural technologies dependent on fossil fuels launched the population boom that is peaking in our time. Now of course this also implies that deindustrial North America will support many, many fewer people than it does today. For obvious reasons, it’s worth talking about the processes by which today’s seriously overpopulated North America will become the sparsely populated continent of the coming dark age—but that’s going to involve a confrontation with a certain kind of petrified irrelevancy all too common in our time.

Every few weeks, the comments page of this blog fields something insisting that I’m ignoring the role of overpopulation in the crisis of our time, and demanding that I say or do something about that. In point of fact, I’ve said quite a bit about overpopulation on this blog over the years, dating back to this post from 2007. What I’ve said about it, though, doesn’t follow either one of the two officially sanctioned scripts into which discussions of overpopulation are inevitably shoehorned in today’s industrial world; the comments I get are thus basically objecting to the fact that I’m not toeing the party line.

Like most cultural phenomena in today’s industrial world, the scripts just mentioned hew closely to the faux-liberal and faux-conservative narratives that dominate so much of contemporary thought. (I insist on the prefix, as what passes for political thought these days has essentially nothing to do with either liberalism or conservatism as these were understood as little as a few decades ago.) The scripts differ along the usual lines: that is to say, the faux-liberal script is well-meaning and ineffectual, while the faux-conservative script is practicable and evil.

Thus the faux-liberal script insists that overpopulation is a terrible problem, and we ought to do something about it, and the things we should do about it are all things that don’t work, won’t work, and have been being tried over and over again for decades without having the slightest effect on the situation. The faux-conservative script insists that overpopulation is a terrible problem, but only because it’s people of, ahem, the wrong skin color who are overpopulating, ahem, our country: that is, overpopulation means immigration, and immigration means let’s throw buckets of gasoline onto the flames of ethnic conflict, so it can play its standard role in ripping apart a dying civilization with even more verve than usual.

Overpopulation and immigration policy are not the same thing; neither are depopulation and the mass migrations of whole peoples for which German historians of the post-Roman dark ages coined the neat term völkerwanderung, which are the corresponding phenomena in eras of decline and fall. For that reason, the faux-conservative side of the debate, along with the usually unmentioned realities of immigration policy in today’s America and the far greater and more troubling realities of mass migration and ethnogenesis that will follow in due time, will be left for next week’s post. For now I want to talk about overpopulation as such, and therefore about the faux-liberal side of the debate and the stark realities of depopulation that are waiting in the future.

All this needs to be put in its proper context. In 1962, the year I was born, there were about three and a half billion human beings on this planet. Today, there are more than seven billion of us. That staggering increase in human numbers has played an immense and disastrous role in backing today’s industrial world into the corner where it now finds itself. Among all the forces driving us toward an ugly future, the raw pressure of human overpopulation, with the huge and rising resource requirements it entails, is among the most important.

That much is clear. What to do about it is something else again. You’ll still hear people insisting that campaigns to convince people to limit their reproduction voluntarily ought to do the trick, but such campaigns have been ongoing since well before I was born, and human numbers more than doubled anyway. It bears repeating that if a strategy has failed every time it’s been tried, insisting that we ought to do it again isn’t a useful suggestion. That applies not only to the campaigns just noted, but to all the other proposals to slow or stop population growth that have been tried repeatedly and failed just as repeatedly over the decades just past.

These days, a great deal of the hopeful talk around the subject of limits to overpopulation has refocused on what’s called the demographic transition: the process, visible in the population history of most of today’s industrial nations, whereby people start voluntarily reducing their reproduction when their income and access to resources rise above a certain level. It’s a real effect, though its causes are far from clear. The problem here is simply that the resource base that would make it possible for enough of the world’s population to have the income and access to resources necessary to trigger a worldwide demographic transition simply don’t exist.

As fossil fuels and a galaxy of other nonrenewable resources slide down the slope of depletion at varying rates, for that matter, it’s becoming increasingly hard for people in the industrial nations to maintain their familiar standards of living. It may be worth noting that this hasn’t caused a sudden upward spike in population growth in those countries where downward mobility has become most visible. The demographic transition, in other words, doesn’t work in reverse, and this points to a crucial fact that hasn’t necessarily been given the weight it deserves in conversations about overpopulation.

The vast surge in human numbers that dominates the demographic history of modern times is wholly a phenomenon of the industrial age. Other historical periods have seen modest population increases, but nothing on the same scale, and those have reversed themselves promptly when ecological limits came into play. Whatever the specific factors and forces that drove the population boom, then, it’s a pretty safe bet that the underlying cause was the one factor present in industrial civilization that hasn’t played a significant role in any other human society: the exploitation of vast quantities of extrasomatic energy—that is, energy that doesn’t come into play by means of human or animal muscle. Place the curve of increasing energy per capita worldwide next to the curve of human population worldwide, and the two move very nearly in lockstep: thus it’s fair to say that human beings, like yeast, respond to increased access to energy with increased reproduction.

Does that mean that we’re going to have to deal with soaring population worldwide for the foreseeable future? No, and hard planetary limits to resource extraction are the reasons why. Without the huge energy subsidy to agriculture contributed by fossil fuels, producing enough food to support seven billion people won’t be possible. We saw a preview of the consequences in 2008 and 2009, when the spike in petroleum prices caused a corresponding spike in food prices and a great many people around the world found themselves scrambling to get enough to eat on any terms at all. The riots and revolutions that followed grabbed the headlines, but another shift that happened around the same time deserves more attention: birth rates in many Third World countries decreased noticeably, and have continued to trend downward since then.

The same phenomenon can be seen elsewhere. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the formerly Soviet republics have seen steep declines in rates of live birth, life expectancy, and most other measures of public health, while death rates have climbed well above birth rates and stayed there. For that matter, since 2008, birth rates in the United States have dropped even further below the rate of replacement than they were before that time; immigration is the only reason the population of the United States doesn’t register declines year after year.

This is the wave of the future.  As fossil fuel and other resources continue to deplete, and economies dependent on those resources become less and less able to provide people with the necessities of life, the population boom will turn into a population bust. The base scenario in 1972’s The Limits to Growth, still the most accurate (and thus inevitably the most vilified) model of the future into which we’re stumbling blindly just now, put the peak of global population somewhere around 2030: that is, sixteen years from now. Recent declines in birth rates in areas that were once hotbeds of population growth, such as Latin America and the Middle East, can be seen as the leveling off that always occurs in a population curve before decline sets in.

That decline is likely to go very far indeed. That’s partly a matter of straightforward logic: since global population has been artificially inflated by pouring extrasomatic energy into boosting the food supply and providing other necessary resources to human beings, the exhaustion of economically extractable reserves of the fossil fuels that made that process possible will knock the props out from under global population figures. Still, historical parallels also have quite a bit to offer here: extreme depopulation is a common feature of the decline and fall of civilizations, with up to 95% population loss over the one to three centuries that the fall of a civilization usually takes.

Suggest that to people nowadays and, once you get past the usual reactions of denial and disbelief, the standard assumption is that population declines so severe could only happen if there were catastrophes on a truly gargantuan scale. That’s an easy assumption to make, but it doesn’t happen to be true. Just as it didn’t take vast public orgies of copulation and childbirth to double the planet’s population over the last half-century, it wouldn’t take equivalent exercises in mass death to halve the planet’s population over the same time frame. The ordinary processes of demography can do the trick all by themselves.

Let’s explore that by way of a thought experiment. Between family, friends, coworkers, and the others that you meet in the course of your daily activities, you probably know something close to a hundred people. Every so often, in the ordinary course of events, one of them dies—depending on the age and social status of the people you know, that might happen once a year, once every two years, or what have you. Take a moment to recall the most recent death in your social circle, and the one before that, to help put the rest of the thought experiment in context.

Now imagine that from this day onward, among the hundred people you know, one additional person—one person more than you would otherwise expect to die—dies every year, while the rate of birth remains the same as it is now. Imagine that modest increase in the death rate affecting the people you know. One year, an elderly relative of yours doesn’t wake up one morning; the next, a barista at the place where you get coffee on the way to work dies of cancer; the year after that, a coworker’s child comes down with an infection the doctors can’t treat, and so on.  A noticeable shift? Granted, but it’s not Armageddon; you attend a few more funerals than you’re used to, make friends with the new barista, and go about your life until one of those additional deaths is yours.

Now take that process and extrapolate it out. (Those of my readers who have the necessary math skills should take the time to crunch the numbers themselves.) Over the course of three centuries, an increase in the crude death rate of one per cent per annum, given an unchanged birth rate, is sufficient to reduce a population to five per cent of its original level. Vast catastrophes need not apply; of the traditional four horsemen, War, Famine, and Pestilence can sit around drinking beer and playing poker. The fourth horseman, in the shape of a modest change in crude death rates, can do the job all by himself.

Now imagine the same scenario, except that there are two additional deaths each year in your social circle, rather than one.  That would be considerably more noticeable, but it still doesn’t look like the end of the world—at least until you do the math. An increase in the crude death rate of two per cent per annum, given an unchanged birth rate, is enough to reduce a population to five per cent of its original level within a single century. In global terms, if world population peaks around 8 billion in 2030, a decline on that scale would leave four hundred million people on the planet by 2130.

In the real world, of course, things are not as simple or smooth as they are in the thought experiment just offered. Birth rates are subject to complex pressures and vary up and down depending on the specific pressures a population faces, and even small increases in infant and child mortality have a disproportionate effect by removing potential breeding pairs from the population before they can reproduce. Meanwhile, population declines are rarely anything like so even as  the thought experiment suggests; those other three horsemen, in particular, tend to get bored of their poker game at intervals and go riding out to give the guy with the scythe some help with the harvest. War, famine, and pestilence are common events in the decline and fall of a civilization, and the twilight of the industrial world is likely to get its fair share of them.

Thus it probably won’t be a matter of two more deaths a year, every year. Instead, one year, war breaks out, most of the young men in town get drafted, and half of them come back in body bags.  Another year, after a string of bad harvests, the flu comes through, and a lot of people who would have shaken it off under better conditions are just that little bit too malnourished to survive.  Yet another year, a virus shaken out of its tropical home by climate change and ecosystem disruption goes through town, and fifteen per cent of the population dies in eight ghastly months. That’s the way population declines happen in history.

In the twilight years of the Roman world, for example, a steady demographic contraction was overlaid by civil wars, barbarian invasions, economic crises, famines, and epidemics; the total population decline varied significantly from one region to another, but even the relatively stable parts of the Eastern Empire seem to have had around a 50% loss of population, while some areas of the Western Empire suffered far more drastic losses; Britain in particular was transformed from a rich, populous, and largely urbanized province to a land of silent urban ruins and small, scattered villages of subsistence farmers where even so simple a technology as wheel-thrown pottery became a lost art.

The classic lowland Maya are another good example along the same lines.  Hammered by climate change and topsoil loss, the Maya heartland went through a rolling collapse a century and a half in length that ended with population levels maybe five per cent of what they’d been at the start of the Terminal Classic period, and most of the great Maya cities became empty ruins rapidly covered by the encroaching jungle. Those of my readers who have seen pictures of tropical foliage burying the pyramids of Tikal and Copan might want to imagine scenes of the same kind in the ruins of Atlanta and Austin a few centuries from now. That’s the kind of thing that happens when an urbanized society suffers severe population loss during the decline and fall of a civilization.

That, in turn, is what has to be factored into any realistic forecast of dark age America: there will be many, many fewer people inhabiting North America a few centuries from now than there are today.  Between the depletion of the fossil fuel resources necessary to maintain today’s hugely inflated numbers and the degradation of North America’s human carrying capacity by climate change, sea level rise, and persistent radiological and chemical pollution, the continent simply won’t be able to support that many people. The current total is about 470 million—35 million in Canada, 314 million in the US, and 121 million in Mexico, according to the latest figures I was able to find—and something close to five per cent of that—say, 20 to 25 million—might be a reasonable midrange estimate for the human population of the North American continent when the population implosion finally bottoms out a few centuries from now.

Now of course those 20 to 25 million people won’t be scattered evenly across the continent. There will be very large regions—for example, the nearly lifeless, sun-blasted wastelands that climate change will make of the southern Great Plains and the Sonoran desert—where human settlement will be as sparse as it is today in the bleakest parts of the Sahara or the Rub’al Khali of central Arabia. There will be other areas—for example, the Great Lakes region and the southern half of Mexico’s great central valley—where population will be relatively dense by Dark Age standards, and towns of modest size may even thrive if they happen to be in defensible locations.

The nomadic herding folk of the midwestern prairies, the villages of the Gulf Coast jungles, and the other human ecologies that will spring up in the varying ecosystems of deindustrial North America will all gradually settle into a more or less stable population level, at which births and deaths balance each other and the consumption of resources stays at or below sustainable levels of production. That’s what happens in human societies that don’t have the dubious advantage of a torrent of nonrenewable energy reserves to distract them temporarily from the hard necessities of survival.

It’s getting to that level that’s going to be a bear. The mechanisms of population contraction are simple enough, and as suggested above, they can have a dramatic impact on historical time scales without cataclysmic impact on the scale of individual lives. No, the difficult part of population contraction is its impact on economic patterns geared to continuous population growth. That’s part of a more general pattern, of course—the brutal impact of the end of growth on an economy that depends on growth to function at all—which has been discussed on this blog several times already, and will require close study in the present sequence of posts.

That examination will begin after we’ve considered the second half of the demography of dark age America: the role of mass migration and ethnogenesis in the birth of the cultures that will emerge on this continent when industrial civilization is a fading memory. That very challenging discussion will occupy next week’s post.