Sunday, February 23, 2014

So where to now? Who do we ask: David Holmgren, Jim Lovelock or Guy McPherson?

It's been a long while since I lasted posted. In 2012 I came to the end of long train of thought and exploration. My thinking has been changing in emphasis, but it's taken me a while to be able to articulate this change. So where am I and where are we, at the beginning of 2014?

It's obvious to me that we are in an accelerating process of decline of industrial culture. For a few years, dear little Australia seemed proof against the travails affecting the rest of the world, but now we too are on the big slide. All our automotive manufacturers have announced they will no longer build vehicles in Australia. One of our aluminium smelters is to close. Shell is selling its refinery in Geelong and its service stations. The Federal government is beginning to slash spending — no matter that it's a conservative government which is doing this — the same process would have taken place had the left-wing Labor party retained office. Tax revenues are declining and as unemployment starts to rise, the revenue from income tax and the goods and services tax (GST) will continue to fall and so the slashing will necessarily go on.

Of course the history of industrial culture has been a constant tale of birth, growth, decline and death of technologies, businesses and whole industries. But it has been a tale of growth  — "Progress" — which has seen living standards rise in general. Consequently the bulk of the population is loyal to the system. It has fed us all, so we send our children off to school to be indoctrinated, disciplined and turned into reliable employees.

Downturns in the economy have been periodic features of our civilisation for hundreds of years. Like an overgrown garden, we begin to choke on our own growth, there is a collapse and many businesses and occupations are swept away while new ones are thrust into being, now that new opportunities open up. Every downturn temporarily slows or stops growth, but every upturn which follows sees growth rebound to yet higher levels. This has lead to economic theories which ignore the constraints of natural resources. After all, we seem to have come up with substitutes every time some resource has become exhausted.

When Britain had cut down all its trees for energy, suddenly there was coal. When the limitations of coal became apparent — boom! — suddenly we had oil. An even bigger boom ushered in the atomic age which promised electricity too cheap to meter! Atomic energy fell a long way short of its promise but the cheap oil continued to flow, especially after the oil crisis of the seventies and the consequent rush to exploit offshore resources. Now that we are entering another downturn, brought on by the end of cheap oil, there will be another winnowing of inefficient, aging industries and occupations followed by a resurgence powered by…nuclear fusion? Windmills and solar cells? Zero-point energy? Algae farming? Unfortunately this time, the outlook doesn't look so good.

We now have a monstrously large human population which has been enabled — is in fact a consequence — of the cheap oil of the last hundred years. We are not going to return to business as usual powered by methane digesters running on chicken shit. We are in fact heading into a long, painful and bitter decline in which the human population will necessarily shrink back to something the planet is able to carry.

The mouthpieces of conventional economic wisdom with their constant chants of "returning to growth soon" are sounding more and more like the quacking of ducks. And we are experiencing a crisis of faith in our leaders.

This was all predictable years ago, when the implications of the peaking of conventional oil production world-wide and the consequent rise in oil price made the course of future events quite clear. My original intention with this blog was to blow the warning hooter: "Danger, danger, peak oil. Get ready people…" but now we are into the consequences and my warnings are somewhat beside the point. The question is now, What Do We Do? A subsidiary question must inevitably be, Who Should We Listen To?

On the up-and-up, everyone is fat, happy and full of love for their fellows and glad to give disinterested advice. On the downslide, things are different. Biases and special interests tend to come to the fore. People want to protect their family, their business, their community, their beliefs, their culture or their scam. It is important to develop an acute nose for these biases, because they can distort and devalue advice from even the most previously reliable gurus and sages.

First, David Holmgren. David has been a wonderful visionary and proselytiser for his Permaculture. As the crisis approached, he set up his peak oil web site, Future Scenarios, which had a big influence on me back in the day. David walks the talk. Recently he has published Crash on Demand which has caused a big stir in peak oil circles. I recommend you read Crash on Demand. David has reached something of a crisis, as many of us in the loose Peak Oil movement have. He sees that the industrial system has not crashed and is likely to become much more destructive as it fights for its survival. Remember we are all current members of this system! So his not-very-hopeful reaction is to call on aware, middle-class people who are interested in Permaculture to take the big step, disengage from the system as far as possible and maybe that lack of support will bring it down quicker, thus (maybe) saving us from the worst of the coming climate change.

So what is the problem with this? Some people are not at all happy with David's suggestions. Rob Hopkins, the genial mover behind the Transition movement, is unimpressed by David's abandonment of engagement with the powers-that-be at a local level: local government, unions etc. Others think he hasn't gone far enough. I think he's just doing what he knows best: being a responsible social activist. However I think being a responsible social activist at this point in history is a waste of time. Just because someone listens to you doesn't add up to effective action. David's remarks have stirred up the blogosphere but does that amount to anything? And at a practical level, would a small percentage of the global middle-class withdrawing their savings from banks bring down the system? I hardly think so! David has been prodded by something into making a stand outside his normal range. That's understandable, but it's important to realise that he is making his statements as a normal, private individual. I don't believe he has any more authority or special knowledge in this area than you or I.

On to Jim Lovelock. The grand old man of the Gaia hypothesis is a kind of living god, really. And he can grab the headlines, as in this Guardian online article. Jim has been an advocate of nuclear power for some time and has adopted a few contrarian positions, some of which I agree with. He doesn't appear to owe anyone any favours and so speaks his mind freely. And he's a nice man. But why the nuclear power advocacy? I think it's important to understand where Jim (and David Holmgren for that matter) are coming from. They are products of the academic system. They are highly educated members of the middle-class, however anomalous their current independence from that class's preoccupations appears to be. So at some level they want the part of the system which produced them to continue on — namely the university system. And that can only continue in a society which has the surplus to support it. Now I may be drawing a long bow here, but I'll stick with my opinion. Jim and David are talkers: that is their business as they see it.

This tendency or bias is much more obvious with people like Guy McPherson and his guest posters. Guy woke up from his academic slumbers, realised the game was up and went on a kind of intellectual rampage. Guy is basically an intelligent, good-natured fellow who is very angry. He has tried various alternative living arrangements but it hasn't been wildly successful. He feels trapped and has turned this into the most doom-laden viewpoint in the blogosphere. Humanity is screwed, the planet is a few years away from shrugging us off and there is nothing we can do about it. He has attacked Nicole Foss over a line from Nicole's voluminous essay on David Holmgren's Crash on Demand. His guest posters are pretty similar. The difference between Jim Lovelock and Guy & company is that the latter have given up all hope. They all worked so hard to climb the academic slippery pole, they out-studied the lazy and stupid ones, then arrived at the summit to find — desolation! Theirs is the tragedy of over-investment. Lazy swine (like me) dropped out early when we saw the game was rigged and went on to have a life.

So is Nature Bats Last right? Are we all screwed? A little early to say for humanity as a whole — I have my doubts — but I can say one thing for sure: we're all gonna die! It comes with the job of being a member of the human race. One other thing I'm reasonably sure of too: the academic world — as we know it — is toast. Sorry.

The best essay I've come across today is from Erik Lindberg. His essay is entitled Agency On Demand? Holmgren, Hopkins, and the Historical Problem of Agency. It's a long, thoughful piece at the end of which he says
Beyond this, I have very little to offer at this time.  I don’t know what I should do, nor how I should recommend my friends and family to act and react.
Great! Exactly how I feel. But I'm having a go, building a new house and workshop in town, looking around for a recession or depression proof business (who knows, something's got to work!) and smelling the flowers. Look, life is fuckin' hard! Evolution proceeds through the death of the unsuccessful and the breeding of the successful. But you can't live in the future (or the past). Life is now, the fleeting but endless moment before death. The future is made by people living and reacting in that moment: not by solemn committees composed of the cleverest and holiest of humanity deciding what's best for us all. We simply don't know enough to run anything but our own lives, for better or for worse.

 I distrust leaders, because I grew up with one. "Men are sheep. They need to be lead!" he would thunder. But leaders make sheep of us all.