Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Resolutions for a Post-Peak New Year

To my mind, the traditional habit of New Year’s resolutions has much to recommend it. Though it’s proverbial that most such resolutions are already on the endangered species list a week after the new year begins, and end up in the fossil record somewhere between the brontosaurs and last election’s campaign promises by the time February comes within sight, the idea of entering a new year with new aspirations is a good one. As 2007 approaches, worldwide conventional oil production remains noticeably below its 2005 peak, and the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and elsewhere promises at least its share of oil crises and economic shocks in the months and years to come.

Thus a set of New Year’s resolutions for a world on the brink of the deindustrial age seems timely just now. There’s plenty of material on the web right now about the mechanics of peak oil, and a fair amount on what we can expect once industrial civilization starts tobogganing down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak, but too many of the suggestions for what can be done about it either remain fixated on survivalist fantasies of apocalypse or go chasing after equally unlikely dreams of large-scale political reform. Mick Winter’s excellent new book Peak Oil Prep (and the accompanying website takes a large step in the right direction. Still, I have my own list of suggested resolutions.

For some people the following ideas will be impractical, and for almost everyone they will be at least a little inconvenient. All of them, however, will be an inescapable part of the reality most Americans will have to live with in the future – and quite possibly the very near future, at that. The sooner people concerned with peak oil and the rest of the predicament of industrial society make changes like these in their own lives, the better able they will be to surf the waves of industrial decline and help other people make the transition toward sustainability.

1. Replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents

If you haven’t done this already you may not be paying enough attention. Compact fluorescent bulbs last around eight times as long as ordinary light bulbs, and produce the same amount of light for a quarter the electricity. The less wattage you use, the less of a burden you put on the electrical grid and the biosphere. Go shopping for compact fluorescent bulbs before the new year, and notice the impact on your electric bill.

2. Retrofit your home for energy conservation

Most of the lessons of the 70s energy crises were forgotten long before the recent housing bubble took off, and nearly all recent residential construction leaks heat the way a sieve leaks water – not a good thing in a world of rising energy costs. Fortunately this can be fixed easily with a very modest investment. Weatherstripping doors and windows, putting foam gaskets behind light switch and electrical outlet plates, and the like can be done even by apartment dwellers, and more extensive projects such as putting an extra layer of roll insulation in the attic to prevent heat loss is within the range of most homeowners and house renters. As energy prices rise, heat will once again be too precious to waste. Over the coming year, learn what you can do to conserve energy at home, and do it; your bank balance will thank you, and so will the planet.

3. Cut back on your gasoline consumption

American dependence on cars is as much emotional and psychological as it is practical, and few are willing to take the step we’re all going to have to take sooner or later, and actually get rid of their cars. Everyone can cut down on the amount of gas they use, however. Whether you do it by trading in a gas-guzzler for a more modest and more efficient car, cutting back on casual driving, walking or bicycling more, or switching to carpooling or public transit for your commute, each gallon of gas you don’t use helps stretch out the downside of the Hubbert curve and buys time for a transition to sustainability. Keep track of how much gas you use each month, and try to make the total go down each month for the next year.

4. Plant an organic vegetable garden

Today’s agricultural practices depend on fossil fuels to power equipment, transport produce, and provide fertilizers and pesticides. This makes organic food gardening one of the skills that will be needed most desperately as fossil fuels run short in the decades to come. Pick up a good book on organic gardening – John Jeavons’ How To Grow More Vegetables is among the best – and find a patch of soil for your garden, and you’re ready to go. Apartment dwellers can often use window boxes or half-barrels full of dirt on a patio or balcony as a micro-garden, arrange to borrow a corner of a houseowning friend’s yard, or get a patch in a community garden. It doesn’t matter if you can only grow a few pounds of vegetables over the course of the season – the important thing is getting past the steepest part of the learning curve long before you need to rely on your own produce. Plan your garden in the winter months, get the tools and seed you’ll need, and be ready to plant by the time spring comes.

5. Compost your food waste

Vegetable waste from your kitchen should go back to the soil, not into a landfill. Composting is a simple technology that does this quickly, cleanly and efficiently. Read a good book on composting – Stu Campbell’s Let It Rot! is one of the classics – and go to work. If you have a yard, get a compost bin set up in one corner and use it for your kitchen and yard waste. If you don’t, talk to a friend who gardens – if she composts, she’ll likely be grateful for your compostable waste. If you own your home and your local code permits (most do), consider replacing your flush toilet with a composting toilet. In the deindustrial age, survival will depend on understanding nutrient cycles and working with them, not against them. You might as well get started now. Get your compost bin started as soon as the weather is warm enough.

6. Take up a handicraft

The end of the age of cheap energy means, among other things, that economies based on centralized mass production are on their way out. In the future, just as in the past, most goods and services will have to be produced by local craftspeople or the end users themselves. The coming of peak oil requires the recovery of the old handicrafts people once used to preserve food, make clothes, fashion tools, and produce a hundred other things now shipped worldwide from Third World sweatshops. All these crafts require practice to master, so the sooner you learn them, the better off you’ll be. Choose one and begin practicing it during the coming year.

7. Adopt an “obsolete” technology

In recent decades, the social changes we are pleased to call “progress” have replaced many older, sustainable technologies with newer ones that use energy more extravagantly, wear out or break down more frequently, and depend on an ever widening network of other machines. These changes will come undone in a big way as the end of cheap energy makes most of the 20th century’s technological changes unsustainable. As energy supplies peak and begin to decline, a window of opportunity exists for some of the older technologies to be brought back into use before they are forgotten and have to be laboriously reinvented decades or centuries in the future. Many of them work just as well as their more modern replacements—a slide rule can crunch numbers as effectively as a pocket calculator, for example, and a hand-cranked beater will beat eggs as well as an electric one. Choose a technology from your grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ time and make it part of your daily life during the coming year.

8. Take charge of your own health care

Health care in the industrial nations has become a massive industry even more dependent on extravagant energy consumption and international supply chains than most. In America, at least, it has already become so costly that close to a majority of Americans can no longer afford even routine care, and it will likely be among the first to break down as energy supplies contract and the global economy fractures. Older, less energy-dependent healing methods, most of them part of today’s alternative healing movement, offer one of the few ways of responding to this. Many of them can be learned and practiced, at least in a basic form, without a great deal of training. Over the coming year, choose a method of providing your own health care, learn its strengths and limitations, and use it to maintain your health and treat your minor illnesses.

9. Help build your local community

The Petroleum Age saw the twilight of community across the industrial world, and the birth of a mass society of isolated individuals tied to the larger society only by economic interactions. The results have not been good, and will likely get much worse as the Petroleum Age ends and the economic glue of mass society comes apart. Many of the old institutions of community still exist, and new networks have begun to take shape in many communities. More than anything else, they need people willing to invest a modest amount of time in them. Choose one of them, get involved, and stay active in it through the coming year.

10. Explore your spirituality

At the core of the consumer society, and the fossil fuel-powered industrial system that spawned it, lies the conviction that the highest goals of human existence can be found in sheer material consumption. This notion took shape in opposition to an equally dysfunctional belief that despised the material world and grounded all human hopes in another world on the far side of death. The bitter sibling rivalry between these twin ideologies has hidden from many people the fact that many other options exist. In the twilight of the industrial age, the faith in progress that buoyed the consumer economy faces extinction, and the hopes once confided to it deserve better homes. In spirituality as well as ecology, diversity is a positive good, and the Druid tradition I practice and represent as an archdruid rejects the claim that every human being can, much less should, approach the great mysteries of existence in the same way. Whatever your own vision of spirituality may be, then, explore it more deeply over the coming year, and study its teachings in the context of the coming deindustrial age. You may find that, seen in that light, those teachings make an uncommon amount of sense.

With that, I wish all the readers of this blog a safe and sustainable new year!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Nawida 2150: Q&A

I had some additional questions for Joe, the viewpoint character of last week’s Archdruid Report post. Despite his failing health, he welcomed the chance for an interview. We met at the village hall, walked down to the beach just south of it, and sat on a convenient piece of weathered concrete just above the high water line.

Q: I want to thank you for making the time to talk with me, Joe. I hope you’re not in too much pain.

A: Oh, it comes and goes. It’s not too bad today.

Q: Does the village healer have anything to help with pain?

A: Not for something like this. Sharon makes a willow bark tea that does a good job on cramps and headaches, and poppy resin can be had from merchants now and again, but it costs half the earth—more than a schoolteacher can afford, certainly.

Q: If you don’t mind my asking, how much money do you make?

A: Money? Very little; there’s not much of that in circulation these days. I have one student whose family pays me in money—they’re in trade, so it’s convenient for them. The rest pay in barter or rice chits—those are markers good for a fraction of next year’s rice crop. Most local trade uses one or the other. Still, you can’t buy foreign goods with them, and even if I sold everything I got I couldn’t keep myself in poppy resin for more than a little while. No, I found my remedy in a couple of the Old Time books in my library. You might have heard of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.

Q: The Stoic philosophers?

A: Good! If you were one of my students you’d get a treat. Yes, the old Stoics have a lot to offer these days. Any of my students who stay long enough to handle Old Time English prose end up reading them.

Q: How many students do you have?

A: Right now, fifteen. It’s up and down depending on the season, and of course school’s closed for planting and harvest, but it’s usually between ten and twenty. That’s not bad in a village with fewer than a hundred children of school age, you know.

Q: What about the other children? Can’t their parents afford to send them to school?

A: Partly that; partly, some people don’t see the point of schooling their children; and partly, some children just aren’t suited to book learning. They’ll be perfectly good farmers and crafters even if they can’t read a word of Old Time English, and the doors illiteracy closes to them probably wouldn’t open for them anyway. To my mind, as long as there are always at least a few who have the means, the desire, and the talent to learn, I have no reason to complain. It helps that the church encourages learning so much, of course. Any girl who wants to enter the priestesshood knows right away that she has to learn to read—they won’t even consider taking a postulant who can’t read the sacred books.

Q: What do you think of the Gaian church? I thought I heard a little ambivalence on your part in the Nawida essay.

A: Oh, I think the world of it. (laughs) Seriously, it’s a very good thing. The church does a huge amount of good in the world and not much evil. Of course that might change; I’ve read enough history to know what religions can do if they get tangled up in politics. Still, people need a place to hang their hopes, and that usually means some religion or other. In Old Time they tried to put their hopes on sheer material extravagance instead, but they ran out of resources long before they ran out of cravings to satisfy. That’s the advantage religion has, you know: salvation is a renewable resource. Since the church’s notion of salvation is all mixed up with ecological restoration, they’ve got an advantages most of the Old Time faiths didn’t.

Q: But you don’t actually believe in the Gaian teachings.

A: I can’t see any reason to think that a planetary biosphere has any reason to concern itself with what happens to any particular life form running around on its skin, even if the life form has two legs and a head chockfull of grandiose ideas about its own importance. Now I could be as wrong as wrong can be, but that’s the thing I can’t get my head around.

Q: What does the church think of that?

A: Oh, we’ve had our ups and downs. During the drought years I pretty much kept my mouth shut; those were hard times, and faith in Mama Gaia was just about the only thing that kept people going. Once the seas rose and the rains came, times got much easier, and that makes for tolerance. Anna—she was the priestess before the one we have now—she and I used to sit up late nights and argue about theology over a bottle of whiskey. A fine, well-read person. If the church turns out to be right and I wake up in Mama Gaia’s bosom after this old body finally shuts down, Anna’s one I’ll look for. She was the one who figured out that my Darwin book was something the church didn’t have.

Q: Which book was that?

A: The Voyage of the Beagle. That was one of the books in the old set of Harvard Classics I bought in ’38. Since Darwin’s one of the prophets...

Q: Wait a moment. Charles Darwin is a Gaian prophet?

A: That’s what the church says. It’s in the litany: ‘And for Darwin, who taught the holy truth that humanity is part of nature and bound by its laws—for him and his teaching we give thanks to the Earth Mother.’ Mind you, I sometimes wonder what old Darwin himself would think of that. At any rate, the church has big libraries in Denva and a few other places, and Darwin’s other books are in those, but as far as anyone knows mine was the only copy of The Voyage of the Beagle anywhere. That got me a great deal of tolerance from then on. It probably didn’t hurt that most of my best students went into the church themselves.

Q: How do you feel about that?

A: Oh, I have my ambivalent moments. When I was younger I had wild dreams about reviving technology and rebuilding a secular society, but it’s clear to me now that nothing like that is going to happen anytime soon. As I said, people need a place to hang their hopes, and after what happened to Old Time, there aren’t a lot of people willing to try the same thing again—even if that was possible, and I don’t think it is. I’ve read that when the last big civilization went under, the Old Believers did then what the church is doing now: preserving knowledge, trying to blunt the sharp edges of the times, and—well, look at that! You don’t see one of those every day.

Q: That ship?

A: A two-master up from Antarctica. It’s been close to a year since the last one came.

Q: Antarctica? Do people live there?

A: Quite a few of them. There were settlers in West Antarctica early in the last century; once the western ice sheet melted, it was opened for settlement. They suffered terribly when the big eastern ice sheet collapsed in 2119, of course, but that left the whole continent free of ice. The Antarcticans are great sailors, and trade with anybody who has something they don’t. That means almost everything except wheat, beef, gold, and timber, from what I hear. It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s travelers’ tales these days.

Q: Do you get much news from abroad?

A: Only when merchants or travelers come through, and then only what they remember and want to talk about. Even on this continent, it takes time for news to spread. We didn’t hear about the war between China and Mexico until it was half over, for example, and it went on for close to five years.

Q: Has war been a problem here?

A: Not recently. We had a brisk little border war with the Dakota Republic a few years ago over some territory up near the Missouri headwaters, but most often the Six Republics get along. Yes, that’s most of the old United States east of the Rockies and north of the sea. Generally things seem to have settled down since my childhood.

Q: As a final question, what kind of future do you hope your students will have?

A: Whatever kind they decide to make for themselves. It’s a bigger world than it was in Old Time, when you could step in a plane here and be on the other side of the ocean in a few hours. Now it takes weeks even to get to Denva, and that’s not far away by Old Time standards. A bigger world and not so many people means there’s room for many different futures. I wish I could see some of them, just as I’d probably be glad to be spared some of them. But that’s the way of things. I imagine the same thing was true in Old Time; there were good choices and bad ones. It’s just that the bad ones had so much impact. Nothing we do these days will have half so much, but I hope we can do better in our own small way.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Nawida 2150

This is my third and (for now) last exploration of a deindustrial future using the tools of narrative fiction. Fifty more years have passed since "Solstice 2100." Massive climate change, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, and the final stages of catabolic collapse have transformed the setting almost beyond recognition. In the aftermath of these changes, new cultural forms are evolving to replace the last fragments of industrial civilization.


“Mes Joe? She kee.”

The old man looked up from his book, saw the boy’s smiling brown face at the door. “Da Manda Gaia?”

“Ayah, en da gran house. Habby Nawida!” He grinned and scampered off. Joe closed the book and rose slowly to his feet, wincing at the familiar pain, as the habits of half a lifetime picked at the boy’s words. Nawida, that was from old Spanish “Navidad.” Ironic that the name remained, when the faith it came from was no more than a memory now. Half the words in Alengo were like that, tenanted with the ghosts of old meanings like some haunted building in the old ruins.

He got his cane and a bundle wrapped in cloth, looked out the open door to make sure the rain would hold off a little longer. Out past the palms and mango trees, dark clouds billowed against the southern sky. Those promised another round of monsoon within a day or so, but overhead the sky was clear and blue all the way to space. He nodded, left the little thatched house and started down the broad dirt path that passed for the little village’s main street.

Ghosts, he said to himself as a pig trotted across the way, heading off into the rich green of the fields and the jungle beyond them. Alengo itself—that had been “our lingo” back when it was a makeshift pidgin born on the streets of a half-ruined city. Half Spanish, half English, half Mama Gaia knew what, that was the old joke, but the drought years turned it into a language of its own. These days people spoke Alengo all along the coast from Tenisi west to the plains, and only a few old fools like Joe kept English alive so that somebody could still read the old books.

He wondered what old Molly would have thought of that. She’d spent most of his childhood bribing and browbeating him into learning as much as she thought he could, and went to Mama Gaia convinced she hadn’t done enough. He hadn’t expected to step into old Tom Wu’s footsteps as the village schoolteacher, either, but somehow things turned out that way. Ghosts, he said to himself again. It wasn’t just the language that they haunted.

Off to the left a stream that didn’t exist at all in the drought years splashed its way between jagged lumps of concrete and young trees. There stood the grandest and saddest ghost of all, the little brick building they’d raised for the waterwheel-driven generator. What a project that was! Dan the blacksmith, ten years in the earth now, did all the ironwork just for the fun of it, and half a dozen others helped put up the building, craft the waterwheel, and wind the coils. Even the village kids helped, scrounging wire from the old ruins.

They got it working, too, turning out twelve volts DC as steady as you please. That was when reality started whittling away at the dream of bringing back Old Time technology, because they didn’t have a thing they could do with that current. Light bulbs were out of reach—Joe worked out the design for a vacuum pump, but nobody could craft metal to those tolerances any more, never mind trying to find tungsten for filaments or gases for a fluorescent bulb—and though he got an electric motor built and running after a lot more salvaging, everything anyone could think of to do with it could be done just as well or better by skilled hands with simpler tools.

Then someone turned up an Old Time refrigerator with coolant still in the coils. For close on twenty years, that was the generator’s job, keeping one battered refrigerator running so that everyone in the village had cold drinks in hot weather. That refrigerator accomplished one thing more, though, before it finally broke down for good—it taught Joe the difference between a single machine and a viable technology. It hurt to admit it, but without a fossil-fueled industrial system churning out devices for it to run, electricity wasn’t worth much.

When the refrigerator rattled its last, Joe bartered the copper from the wire—worth plenty in trade by then—for books for the school. He’d done well by it, too, and brought home two big dictionaries and a big matched set of books from Old Time called the Harvard Classics, mostly by authors nobody in the village knew at all. His students got plenty of good English prose to wrestle with, and the priestess borrowed and copied out one volume from the set because it was by one of the Gaian saints and nobody else anywhere had a copy. Still, he’d kept one loop of wire from the generator as a keepsake, and left another on Molly’s grave.

A voice broke into this thoughts: “Ey, Mes Joe!” A young man came past him, wearing the plain loincloth most men wore these days. Eddie, Joe remembered after a moment, Eddie sunna Sue—hardly anybody used family names any more, just the simple mother-name with a bit of rounded English in front. “Tu needa han?” Eddie said. Before Joe could say anything, he grinned and repeated his words in English: “Do you need any help?”

That got a ghost of a smile. “No, I’m fine. And glad to see you didn’t forget everything I taught you. How’s Emmie?”

“Doing fine. You know we got a baby on the way? I don’t know if you got anything in your books about keeping a mother safe.”

“Sharon should have everything I have. Still, I’ll take a look.” Sharon was the village healer and midwife, and all three of the medical books she had came out of Joe’s library, but the reassurance couldn’t hurt. Emmie was Eddie’s second wife; the first, Maria, died in childbirth. That happened less often than it used to—Sharon knew about germs and sanitation, and used raw alcohol as an antiseptic no matter how people yelped about how it stung—but it still happened.

“Thanks! I be sure they save you a beer.” Eddie grinned again and trotted down the street.

Joe followed at his own slower pace. The street went a little further and then widened into a plaza of sorts, with the marketplace on one side, the Gaian church on another, and the village hall—the gran house, everyone called it—on a third. Beyond the gran house, the ground tumbled down an uneven slope to the white sand of the beach and the sea reaching south to the horizon. A few crags of concrete rose out of the water here and there, the last traces of neighborhoods that had been just that little bit too low when the seas rose. Every year the waves pounded those a bit lower; they’d be gone soon, like so many of the legacies of Old Time.

Another irony, he thought, that what brought disaster to so many had been the salvation of his village and the six others that huddled in the ruins of the old city. It took the birth of a new sea to break the drought that once had the whole middle of the continent in its grip. Another ghost hovered up there in the dark monsoon clouds—the day the clouds first came rolling up out of the south and dumped rain on the parched ground. He’d been out in the plaza with everyone else, staring up at the clouds, smelling the almost-forgotten scent of rain on the wind, dancing and whooping as the rain came crashing down at last.

There had been some challenging times after that, of course. The dryland corn they grew before then wouldn’t handle so much moisture, and they had to barter for new seed and learn the way rice paddies worked and tropical fruit grew. Too, the monsoons hadn’t been so predictable those first few years as they became later: Mama Gaia testing them, the priestess said, making sure they didn’t get greedy and stupid the way people were in Old Time. Joe wasn’t sure the biosphere had any such thing in mind—by then he’d read enough Old Time books that the simple faith Molly taught him had dissolved into uncertainties—but that time, at least, he kept his mouth shut. People in Old Time had been greedy and stupid, even the old books admitted that, and if it took religion to keep that from happening again, that’s what it took.

He crossed the little plaza, went into the gran house. The solemn part of Nawida was over, the prayers said to Mama Gaia and all the saints, and the bonfire at midnight to mark the kindling of the new year; what remained was feasting and fun. Inside, drums, flutes and fiddles pounded out a dance tune; young women bare to the waist danced and flirted with young men, while their elders sat on the sides of the hall, sipping palm wine and talking; children scampered around underfoot, bare as when they were born. People waved greetings to Joe as he blinked, looked around the big open room, sighted the one he needed to find.

He crossed the room slowly, circling around the outer edge of the dancing, nodding to the people who greeted him. The one he’d come to meet saw him coming, got to her feet: a middle-aged woman, black hair streaked with iron gray, wearing the plain brown robe of the Manda Gaia. Hermandad de Gaia, that had been, and likely still was west along the coast where Alengo gave way to something closer to old Spanish; Fellowship of Gaia was what they said up North where something like English was still spoken. The Manda Gaia was a new thing, at least to the Gaian faith, though Joe knew enough about history to recognize monasticism when he saw it.

“You must be the schoolteacher,” the woman said in flawless English, and held out a hand in the Old Time courtesy. “I’m Juli darra Ellen.”

“Joe sunna Molly.” He took her hand, shook it. “Yes. Thank you for agreeing to come.”

“For three years now we’ve talked of sending someone here to see you.” She motioned him to a seat on the bench along the wall. “Please. You look tired.”

He allowed a smile, tried to keep his face from showing the sudden stab of pain as he sat. “A little. Enough that I should probably come straight to the point.” He held out the cloth-wrapped bundle. “This is a gift of sorts, for the Manda Gaia.”

The cloth opened, revealing a battered book and a narrow black case. She glanced at the spine of the book, then opened the case and pulled out the old slide rule.

“Do you know what it is?” Joe asked her.

“Yes.” Carefully, using two fingers, she moved the middle section back and forth. “I’ve read about them, but I’ve never seen one. Where did you find it?”

“It’s been in my family for around a hundred years.” That was true in Alengo, at least, where “mi famli” meant the people you grew up with, and “mi mama” the woman who took care of you in childhood; like everyone else, he’d long since given up using Old Time terms of relationship. “The book explains how it’s used. I can’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve done some respectably complex math on it.”

“This thing is precious,” she said. “I’ll take it to our mother house in Denva, get it copied by our craftspeople there, and bring it back to you.”

“That won’t be necessary. I don’t think it’ll be possible, either.” He met her gaze. “Cancer of the bowels,” he said then. “Not the way I would have chosen to go, but there it is. It’s been close to three years now, and by the time you get to Denva and back I’ll be settling down comfortably in the earth.”

“Mama Gaia will take you to Her heart.” Seeing his smile: “You don’t believe that.”

“I think the biosphere has better things to worry about than one old man.”

“Well, I won’t argue theology.”

That got another smile. “Pity.” Then: “I have one other thing to ask, though. I hear quite a bit about the Manda Gaia these days. They say you have schools in some places, schools for children. For the last twenty years all my best pupils have gone into the church, and there’s nobody here to replace me. I’d like to see someone from your order take over the school when this thing gets the better of me. I wish I could say that’s a long way off.”

She nodded. “I can send a letter today.”

“Thank you. You’ve made a cynical old man happy, and that’s not a small feat.” ” The dance music paused, and in the momentary hush he fancied he could hear another, deeper stillness gathering not far off. He thought about the generator again, and the concrete crags battered by the waves, and wondered how many more relics of Old Time would be sold for scrap or washed away before the world finished coming back into balance.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Solstice 2100: Q&A

I had some further questions for Molly, the viewpoint character of last week’s Archdruid Report post, and was able to arrange for an interview. We met in the social hall of her church.

Q: Molly, thank you for agreeing to meet me and answer a few questions.

A: Why, you’re welcome. No harm in talking, and it’s not a workday for me.

Q: What do you do for a living?

A: I work for John Hanna’s soapmaking firm. You must have seen the big green house just west of here; that’s John’s, and the soap plant is in back. I started work there twelve years ago, just after the second civil war ended, and I am the senior employee there now.

Q: How many people work there?

A: Aside from John, there are eight of us in the plant, and as many salespeople out in the field. We make most of the soap sold along this part of the Mississippi.

Q: If you don’t mind my asking, how much do you make?

A: Not at all. I earn 300 columbias a week. I don’t know what that would be in old money.

Q: The columbia’s the postwar currency?

A: It is here. I don’t know what they use elsewhere, but the columbia’s good as far west as the edge of the plains and east to the Ohio River. That’s as far as Hanna soap travels. I don’t imagine anyone would turn down good silver, though, no matter what’s stamped on it.

Q: Paper currency isn’t used any more, then?

A: No, not since the old federal government fell. Oh, I imagine most people my age or older have a few old bills as keepsakes – why, Sophie Mendoza has a ten million old-dollar bill from back before the Persian war, Earth Mother bless her, but of course it’s not worth a penny now. I think some of the new governments printed bills back a few years, but nobody would take them. These days, people want money that has more than promises behind it.

Q: So what happened to the federal government? You mentioned there were two civil wars. I’d guess those did it in.

A: That’s right. The first one started in ’54, when Michael Bonney seized power. He was a general fighting rebels in the southwest, and got into some sort of quarrel with the government. They tried to get rid of him, and he got rid of them instead. His people and the Congress party fought it out for four years, and Bonney won. He broke up the states and took apart most of the old government—mind you, it was practically falling apart by itself, so that didn’t take much work. But things stayed quiet from ’59 until Bonney died in ’74. Mostly quiet, that is; he tried to take back Mexico from the Chinese in ’66, and that didn’t work very well. That was when we lost California.

But Bonney died in ’74, as I said. There was trouble right away, uprisings all over—why, there was one in Springfield, not fifty miles from here; a lot of people died there. We had a coalition government of generals for a few years after that, but in ’79 the generals fell to fighting each other, and the country broke apart. The old USA is eight countries now. Nine, counting California, but that’s a Chinese protectorate, not a country of its own.

Q: And the second civil war lasted to 2088?

A: That’s correct. That was a dreadful year—food ran very short, and plague came through. I think something like one in ten people died in that year alone. There were peace negotiations before that, but it took the famine and plague to make anyone get serious about them.

Q: Was that when you stopped being able to get electricity?

A: No, that happened after the first civil war. Mind you, it was scarce and very expensive before then, but you would still see lights in people’s houses here and there. I think it was in ’59 that Bonney had all the solar engines moved to army bases and government factories, and not long after that the little bit of power we got from the dams down in Tennessee got requisitioned too. All the coal was going to the military by then, too, turned into fuel for tanks and planes, and during the Mexican war everything that could be made into fuel was requisitioned and used up. I haven’t seen coal for sale here in twenty years—not that any decent person would use it, mind you. Earth Mother deserves better from us than that.

Q: What do you use for heating, then?

A: Heating? There’s little need for that nowadays. It’s been fifteen years, no, sixteen, since daytime temperatures dropped below 70° in wintertime. Nights get cool now and then, but nothing more than a quilt will take care of. Cooling would be nice in the summertime when it breaks 120°, but that’s past hoping for now—I’m sure people would pay plenty to get one of the old air conditioners running, but nobody knows how they worked, and if somebody figured it out, where would you get the electricity? Mostly we need fuel for cooking, and wood provides that. There are big woodfarms around the edges of town to meet the demand, and of course plenty of people coppice in their yards.

Q: With that much global warming, the sea level must have gone up quite a bit.

A: Well, you don’t hear much news from down south these days, but back before the second civil war we heard that there had been terrible coastal flooding all along the Gulf. They said half of Florida was underwater. I don’t imagine things are any better there now. They used to drill for oil down there, so I’m not the least surprised Earth Mother put the whole coast under water.

Q: You were raised in the Gaian faith?

A: From age nine, yes. I still remember the first time my stepmother took me to the old Gaian church near the apartment where we lived back then. It wasn’t much to look at, a little brick building with a painted sign over the door, and I remember following her up the stairs and thinking I’d have to sit on a bench and listen to somebody talk. But the priestess – that was old Sister Ruth, bless her, who died in the refugee camp back in ’56 – she was so very kind, and let me join the children’s class, where we planted seeds and learned about water cycles. I made two new friends in the class that very day. I must have made life hard for my whole family for the next week, I was so impatient for Wednesday to come around again!

But of course I got older and learned more about the faith, and came to see just how much sense it makes of everything. I can’t imagine living through some of the times I’ve seen thinking it was all just chance, or the whim of some god who doesn’t have to do anything of the kind, like the Old Believers used to say. Once you know that the troubles now are how Earth Mother is healing the harm people did to her in Old Time, and if we help the healing along we can help make a better world for our children and theirs, then the troubles are easier to bear.

Q: Are there any Christians around now?

A: The Old Believers? Oh, certainly, though there aren’t many of them. They keep to themselves for the most part. One Wednesday back in ’89 one of their preachers stood right out in front of this church and started shouting about how we were going to that place they believe in – I don’t remember what they call it.

Q: Hell?

A: Yes, that was it. He said their god made the world for human beings to use. Can you believe it? I happened to hear him say that as I went to church, and I didn’t know whether to laugh because it was so silly, or weep because it was so wicked. He did the same thing the next Wednesday, and the one after that, but then people started shunning the Old Believers. Nobody would do business with them, not even the farmers in the weekly market. That was the last we heard from him, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Q: Did the shunning stop, once he stopped preaching?

A: Of course. The Old Believers can believe what they want, like anyone else, but they have to act like good neighbors if they expect to be treated that way. There are Buddhist, Jewish, and Seven Powers families in town as well, good responsible people, and there has never been the least trouble between their faiths and ours. For that matter, there are a few New Catholics in town, traders and their families who came from the southwest. My stepson Joe has a New Catholic friend at school, a very polite and friendly boy.

Q: I understand Joe is doing well in school. Is that a public school?

A: Earth’s sake, no – there hasn’t been a public school in town for forty years. Tom Wu runs the school in his home. He used to teach in a military school during the Bonney years, and he makes his living as a private schoolteacher now. There are five or six schools like his in town, I would guess. Not everyone can afford to pay to have their children schooled, of course, and some of those who could pay for it don’t see the value in it. But Joe’s a clever child. If he’ll only apply himself, he can learn anything he chooses.

Q: As a final question, what sort of future do you hope for him?

A: I wish him an easier life than I had. But that depends on what Earth Mother sends us, of course. The people back in Old Time did her so much harm, and she needs so much healing, we simply have to accept what comes.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Solstice 2100

My second attempt to use the tools of narrative fiction to explore the deindustrial future, this story is set half a century after “Christmas Eve 2050.” Once again the subject is an American family’s experience in a world after peak oil. Between the two narratives, several more cycles of catabolic collapse, involving civil war, epidemic disease, and the onset of severe climate change, have transformed the physical and cultural landscape, with more changes in sight.


Bits of windblown rubbish clattered down the street as Molly reached for the doorlatch. She’d been at church most of the day helping get ready for the solstice ritual, and come home now only because the boy would be back from school soon and would need some getting ready himself. For that matter, she had a few preparations of her own to make, and one more than anything else. She opened the door, closed it quick behind her to keep dust out.

Once inside she took off coat and dust scarf, shook out hair the color of old iron, brushed dust off her hands: no water to spare for washing them, not since autumn rains all but failed this year. Still, the little two-room shack was as clean as dry rags and a meticulous eye could make it. The few furnishings she had—table and two chairs, cooking stove, cupboard, washboard and washtub—glinted in the vague light from the four small windows; not a spot of rust on any of them, and not because the blacksmith who made them used some fancy metal, either. Good plain salvaged iron kept if you took care of it, and it didn’t put a burden on Earth Mother or stray into the extravagance that got Old Time people in trouble with Her.

Knowing the boy would be home soon, she went into the bedroom right away, stepped past the two iron bedsteads to the room’s far end and unlocked one of the trunks there. Homespun was good enough for everyday but holidays called for better. She considered, chose a dress the color of Earth Mother’s own good green, set it on her bed. That would do. A small box inside the trunk gave up a pair of earrings with bright stones—her mother’s, worn only on special days these twenty years now. Then, from the bottom of the trunk, she pulled a package wrapped in coarse brown cloth. Her hands shook a bit as she set it on the bed next to the dress.

A few minutes later, dressed for holiday, she came out of the bedroom and put the package on the table. Clatter of the latch told her she was just in time. The door flew open, letting in a cloud of dust and a boy, brown-haired and barefoot, in clothes that had seen many better days.

“Earth’s sake, Joe, shut the door!” she chided. “You’ll let all the dust off the street in with you.”

“Yes’m.” Abashed, the boy pulled the door shut, submitted to a thorough dusting with the cleanest of the rags. “There,” Molly said. “How was school today?”

That got her a sullen look. “I don’t want to go any more.”

She said nothing, pursed her lips. “I don’t,” the boy repeated. Then, in a rush of words: “Pacho doesn’t have to go to school any more. He works for his brother the savager.”

“Salvager,” she corrected.

“Everybody says it ‘savager’.”

“You can say it however you want with your friends, but at home we speak good English.”

Joe gave her an angry look. “Sal-vager. That’s what his brother does, stripping metal in the towers, and Pacho helps him. He says his mom’s happy ‘cause he’s bringing money home.”


Another look, angry and ashamed at the same time. “Because he’s bringing money home. I bet I could make as much as he does, ‘stead—” He caught himself, glared at her. “Instead of sitting in old man Wu’s house and learning stuff that doesn’t matter any more anyway.”

So, Molly thought, it’s come to this already. “It matters more now than it used to, back in Old Time. You look at Pacho now, and you think he’s got a trade, he makes money, and that’s the end of it. But all he’ll ever be is a salvager. You deserve better.”

He said nothing, met her gaze with a hard flat look. That angered her more than anything he could have said. “You think school doesn’t matter,” she snapped. “You don’t know how many times I cried because I didn’t get to go to school, or how many times I did without because the jobs I could get without schooling paid barely enough to live on. And I promised your mother—” She hadn’t meant to bring up Linny, now of all times, but no point in trying to unsay it. “I promised your mother you’d get an education and I’m not going to break that promise.”

Joe looked away, his face reddening, and Molly berated herself inwardly for mentioning his parents. That had to sting, though Earth Mother knew there were plenty of families in the same case these days, young and old with no blood relation living together under one roof after plague and famine and two civil wars finished with the people they called family beforehand. At least she’d known Jeff and Linny back when Joe was born, had changed his diapers and fed him goat milk from a bottle often enough to feel like some sort of family.

Only one way to mend things, she decided. She’d meant to wait until after church, but that couldn’t be helped. She went to the table. “Come over here. I want to show you something.”

He came after a moment, still looking away, trying to hide the wetness on his cheeks. Molly unwrapped the package, revealing an old book and a long thin shape in a case of cracked black plastic. “What’s that?” Joe asked.

“Take a look.”

He picked the case up, gave her a wary glance, opened it. The slide rule caught the light as he took it out, numbers still readable on the yellowing plastic. “Hoo! Where’d you savage this?”

She let it pass. “I didn’t. That belonged to my brother Joe. When he died in the war, the army tried to send his things to my mother. We were in the refugee camp by then, but one of the families who stayed behind in our neighborhood kept the package for us until the fighting was over and we came back. And this—” She pointed to the book. “This was just about the only thing that didn’t get looted from our apartment. It’s one of Joe’s schoolbooks, and it teaches how to use a slide rule like this one. You need to stay in school so you can learn to read it.”

“I can read better than anybody in my class.”

“You can’t read this.” Meeting his angry look calmly: “Try it.”

That was a gamble—she couldn’t read more than a few words out of the boy’s schoolbooks, for that matter—but as he flipped through the pages and his shoulders hunched further and further up, she knew she’d won it. “Tom Wu says you’re a better reader than anyone in your class, too. That’s why it’s important for you to stay in school, so you can learn to read this and books like it. Do you know what my brother was going to do with his slide rule? He wanted to be an engineer, before they drafted him. He wanted to make solar engines.”

“Like the old rusty ones by the mill?”

“Yes. Nobody knows how to build them any more, or even how to make the old ones work. Maybe you could figure that out. People would be glad to get electricity again, you know.”

She watched his face, waited for the right moment, as dreams collided somewhere back behind his eyes, Joe-the-salvager against Joe-the-engine-maker, Joe-the-bringer-of-electricity. “That’s why,” she said, “I decided to give these to you.” That got a sudden look, wide-eyed, no trace of the old sullen anger left. “But,” Molly went on, holding up one finger, “only if you promise me you’ll stay in school. They would be wasted on a salvager. They should go to someone who’ll learn how to do something with them.”

Joe opened his mouth, closed it, swallowed. “Okay,” he forced out.

“You promise you’ll stay in school? All the way through?”

“I promise.”

Molly allowed a smile, indicated the book. “Then they’re yours. You can keep them in your trunk until you know what to do with them.” He picked up the book and the wrapping cloth, gave her an uncertain look, as though half expecting her to take them back. “While you’re putting them there,” she said then, “you should get something nicer to wear, too, and quickly. We shouldn’t be late for church, especially not on solstice day.”

“Yes’m.” He started toward the bedroom, stopped halfway there. “Didn’t people use to give each other presents on solstice day?”

Memories jabbed at Molly: the apartment she’d grown up in, full of soft furniture and the glow of electric light, scent of a big holiday dinner wafting from the kitchen, new clothes every year and Christmas stockings with real candy in them, and the look on her brother’s face when he got the slide rule that Christmas when she was eight. People had so much back then! “Yes,” she told the boy. “Yes, we did.”

His face grew troubled. “But wasn’t that wicked?”

“No.” Was it? She pushed the thought away. “There was plenty of wickedness in Old Time, all that extravagance, and next to nobody sparing so much as a thought for Mother Earth. But I don’t think it was wicked for my mother and father to give Joe a slide rule.”

Joe took that in. “Then this’ll be my solstice present,” he announced, and took it into the bedroom.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Christmas Eve 2050: Q&A

I had some questions for Jane Average, the viewpoint character of “Christmas Eve 2050,” and fortunately I was able to arrange an interview. We met in the lunchroom of the metal recycling plant where she works.

Q: Jane, thanks for taking the time for these questions. I’m afraid you may not want to answer some of them, though.

A: Like what?

Q: Well, for starters, how much money you and your husband make, and where it goes.

A: Oh, that’s nothing – you had me thinking you wanted to talk politics. I make N$250 an hour, like all the office staff. Flat tax is 30%, so for a fifty-hour week I take home N$8750. Joe’s on the factory floor so he makes less, even though he’s a foreman. The two of us make a bit over N$16,000 a week. That’s all in new dollars, of course, so figure $320,000,000 in old money.

Q: That sounds like a lot of money, even in new dollars.

A: Well, but remember that a bottle of milk is N$85. Half our income goes for food; even with rationing, it’s not cheap, so figure around N$8000 a week. Energy used to be close to half that in the winter, with our share of coal for the boiler, but it’s cheaper now that the new solar plant has gone online.

Q: Does the plant use solar cells?

A: Good lord, no—the raw materials for those hubberted years ago. No, they’ve got big dish mirrors and Stirling engines driving the generators. Joe Jr. could tell you more about it than I can. He wants to build them when he grows up. But where was I? Rent is a bit less than N$1000 a week—prices are coming back up, though they’re still pretty fair. I remember during the war you could get a place to live for the asking, there were that many empty buildings.

Q: Wow. What’s a gallon of gas cost?

A: Gasoline? I don’t have a clue. Jon? Any idea what a gallon of gasoline costs?

Jon (at the next table): N$450 if you can get a ration coupon. If you’re off book, the sky’s the limit; start around N$1500, maybe, if you’re lucky.

Q: Off book?

A: Under the table from an illegal dealer. If you get caught and the judge is in a bad mood, you could do a year in labor camp, too, so add that to the price.

Q: You mentioned labor camps in the Christmas Eve essay, too. How do those work?

A: Crooks used to go to jail, right? Well, after the war started they couldn’t be spared from the work force, and jails cost too much to run anyway, so the government moved the convicts to camps wherever there was work. These days convicts mostly do fieldwork on big farms, drought reclamation projects, that sort of thing.

Q: What are conditions like in the camps?

A: Well, convicts are supposed to get three meals a day and so on, but you know that doesn’t always happen. When food’s short, it’s twice as short in the camps, and convicts don’t get much health care. That was how we lost our friend Bill. He had some kind of heart condition, and he didn’t get medicine or anything, so he just dropped dead one day.

Q: That seems pretty harsh.

A: Yeah, but what are you going to do? There isn’t enough to go around, so one way or another you have to decide who goes without. Bill was a dear, but you know, a lot of people put everything they had into his firm, and lost it all in the crash of ’41. Joe and I tried to talk him out of going into derivatives in the first place, but you know how people are when they think they can get rich. It wasn’t anybody else’s fault; he hubberted himself.

Q: You used that word before, didn’t you? “Hubberted,” I mean. Do you know who M. King Hubbert was?

A: He’s the guy who figured out that oil was going to hubbert someday, wasn’t he? But it’s a word people use a lot. When you get to the point that you can see the bottom of the sugar jar, you say the sugar’s about to hubbert, but you also use it when something or somebody takes any kind of nosedive. A lot of banks hubberted in ’41, for instance.

Q: Tell me about the ’41 crash. What happened?

A: I don’t know much about it, really. The markets are always way up or way down, and there’s a crash every few years. ’41 was big, though. That was after the second currency reform, when inflation broke 500% a year, and they funded a lot of postwar rebuilding with derivatives sales. Things got really giddy for a while, and then of course it all fell apart.

Q: You mentioned the war several times in the essay. I don’t know anything about that, remember, and I'm curious about the details.

A: Oh, that's true. But I’m not sure where to begin. We were fighting the Persians before I was born – they were called Iranians then, weren’t they? There were wars in ’07 and ’12, before Daryavush took over the country from those religious people – I forget what they were called.

Q: The mullahs?

A: Something like that. Anyway, Daryavush made himself emperor of Persia in ’20. At first people said he was going to side with us against the Chinese, and then he sided with the Chinese instead, and then we were fighting him, and then we were fighting the Chinese, and then we were fighting just about everybody. We sent troops all over the world, and you saw gold stars in a lot of windows by the end of the war; my brothers were drafted and never came home. Jeff was killed in action in Africa, and Matt’s unit got hit by a briefcase nuke in Mexico.

Q: I’m sorry. Did a lot of nukes get used in the war?

A: Mostly just the little briefcase bombs. A few big ones got tossed between Persia and Israel around the time Jerusalem fell, and we used some tacticals in Africa, but that’s all. Toward the end of the war, when we were trying to hold onto Mexico in ’34 and ’35, everyone was scared to death that we were going to go nuclear with the Persians and the Chinese in a big way, but the peace treaty came first. You can’t imagine how it felt when the bells started ringing all over town and we knew the treaty was signed. We still had hungry days after that, with reparations and everything, but the war was over and we didn’t have to worry about the bombs.

Q: Reparations?

A: Well, we didn’t win, you know.

Q: I didn’t. But another question one of my readers had was about your adopted daughter Molly. Why can’t she get into a school?

A: The charter school only takes kids who pass the entrance tests, and the public schools shut down during the war to save fuel and money. The government says they’re going to open them again one of these days, but I don’t expect it any time soon. I worry about Molly a lot. She tries, but reading is just hard for her. If we can’t get her an education, she’s going to have a hard life.

Q: But Joe Jr. is doing well.

A: I’m so proud of him. He’s already talking to engineers about an apprenticeship once he leaves charter school. As long as we can keep him out of the army he’ll be fine.

Q: What’s the problem with the army? Are you worried about another war?

A: No, but we’re getting a little too close to politics, you know. Let’s just say that the army has things to do on our side of the border these days.

Q: Got it. Maybe I should finish by asking what you think the future holds.

A: I hope it brings better times. I know we can’t go back to living like it’s 2000, the resources just aren’t there any more, but I’d like to see our money go a little further, and I’d like to see Joe Jr. and Molly have better lives than Joe and I have. Still, if we can hold on to what we’ve got now that won’t be too bad. I hope we can do that. I really hope so.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Christmas Eve 2050

Human beings make sense of their lives by telling stories, and the tools of narrative fiction have enormous value for putting facts in context – especially when the context is as unfamiliar as the aftermath of peak oil will be to most people in the industrial world. With this excuse, if any is needed, I’ve sketched out the first of three glimpses of what life might be like for an average American family in the deindustrial future. This one’s set in 2050, about 40 years postpeak, during a respite from one of the first waves of catabolic collapse.

Jane tucked the pie into the oven, wound the timer, and allowed a smile. Though her last name was Average, courtesy of some forgotten Ellis Island clerk who garbled the Eastern European surname of her husband’s great-great-grandfather, she felt better than average this Christmas. She felt lucky, special. They’d been able to get a Thanksgiving turkey and a Christmas ham, for the first time since the war, and though they’d had to hoard ration coupons all year to do it, she didn’t regret all those dinners of squash and beans from the garden. There were presents for the children, candles for the table, more than enough food for all: just like old times.

For the first time in years, things looked bright and the future didn’t seem quite so threatening. She and Joe both had good jobs at a metal recycling plant; she did bookkeeping, and he’d just been promoted to shift foreman. Nothing the company depended on was about to hubbert, too, so their jobs would be around for a while. Inflation was down to 20% a year after the last currency reform, which was a big improvement. Food was still expensive, but at least you could count on getting it, and electricity was cheaper since the new solar plant went online last spring. All in all, life was good.

“Honey?” Joe’s voice, calling from the living room. “Everybody’s ready.”

“Pie’s just in. I’m on my way,” She took off the oven mitts and went out of the kitchen to where Joe and the children were waiting.

Memories from Jane’s childhood jarred against the little living room, with its single bare light bulb and the radio playing tinny holiday music in one corner. Back then, Christmas meant snow, colored lights, the balsam scent of a Christmas tree, crowds of relatives from all over, TV and internet entertainment blaring in the background. All of that was long gone, of course. Jane hadn’t seen snow since the big methane spike in ’24 sent the climate reeling. Electricity cost too much to waste on lights, and nobody cut down trees these days, though it wasn’t a labor camp offense the way it was when fuel ran short during the war. Traveling across country was for soldiers, prisoners, government officials, and the very rich. TVs were too expensive for most people, and the government and the army hoarded what was left of the internet after e-warfare and electricity shortages got through with it. Still, there were cards and decorations on the Christmas shelf, and stockings to hang underneath.

They always opened one special present each on Christmas eve, but the stockings had to go up first, and that brought a sad moment. She and Joe hung theirs, then stepped aside for Joe Jr. He had three stockings in his hands: one for himself and two for the children they’d lost. With all the solemnity a twelve-year-old could muster, he put the stockings on their hooks: one for him; one for Cathy, who died age three from drug-resistant pneumonia; one for Brett, who died age eight when hemorrhagic fever came through in ‘45. Then he stepped aside, too, and turned to look at the fourth person there.

Molly wasn’t Jane’s daughter, though it was hard for either of them to remember that sometimes. She was the child of their friends Bill and Erica. Bill was a derivatives broker who got caught cooking his firm’s books in the crash of ’41, went to labor camp, and died there. A very pregnant Erica moved in with Jane and Joe, gave birth to Molly, and died in the same epidemic as Brett. So Molly had three stockings to hang, too. She was small for her eight years, and had to stretch to get the stockings on their hooks.

Once all the stockings were in place, Joe crossed the room to his armchair, sat down with a grin, and took four small packages from under the end table with the air of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Each one was wrapped in a bright scrap of cloth. Jane recalled wrapping paper from her own childhood, used once and thrown away, and wondered why anyone even in those days put up with such waste. Didn’t people have better things to do with all the money they used to have? Jane was more sensible; once the Average family’s presents were unwrapped, the cloth wrappings went back to the quilt drawer where they came from.

Joe Jr. got his present unwrapped first. “Sweet,” he said in awed tones. “Look at it.” The slide rule sparkled as numbers slid smoothly past one another. He had a gift for math, so his teachers said, and he’d won a cheap slide rule in a contest when the government launched a Sustainability Initiative two years back. The government was always launching Sustainability Initiatives, but this one actually made some sense: pocket calculators cost close to a month’s wages these days, and word on the street was that some of the minerals needed for the chips were about to hubbert. Jane knew what that meant, so she and Joe worked extra hours to afford a professional model for Joe Jr. He’d need tech skills and an exempt job to stay out of the army, and those who went into the army came home maimed or dead too often to take any chances.

The wrappings of Molly’s present came open a moment later to reveal two books with bright flimsy covers. Jane caught the flicker of disappointment before the child put on a bright smile. Molly hadn’t tested high enough to get into charter school, and since the war, that meant no school at all unless she could get her scores up next year. She was bright enough when it came to practical things, and good at math, but reading was a challenge. One of the old women who kept themselves fed tending and teaching the neighborhood children guessed that Molly had dyslexia, but what exactly that meant and what could be done about it, Jane had never been able to learn. She gave Molly a hug, hoping she would understand.

She and Joe opened their presents, knowing that each contained something they already owned – one of Joe’s ties and a pair of Jane’s earrings, wrapped up late at night so the children wouldn’t know. After the slide rule, Molly’s books, and the ham, there wasn’t money for more luxuries. The rest of the presents, the ones that would wait for morning, were clothes and other necessities. They always were; it would take much better times to change that.

A chime from the kitchen caught everyone’s attention. “That’s the pie,” she said. “First one in to help set the table gets an extra slice.” The slice was for Molly, of course, though Joe Jr. made a game of it, racing her into the kitchen and losing on purpose. Jane and Joe followed at a less hectic pace. The four of them had the table set in minutes: ham and applesauce, sweet potatoes, cabbage, mashed carrots, a plate of homemade Christmas candies, and the squash pie steaming over on the counter: more food in one place than Jane ever thought she’d see again during the worst part of the war, enough for everyone to get gloriously overfull for a change. The plates and silver were Bill and Erica’s, real 20th century stuff.

They mumbled their way through grace, an old habit not yet quite put away. Jane and Joe belonged to one of the Christian churches years back, but drifted away around the time the last traces of religion got shouldered aside in favor of political propaganda for one of the prewar parties, she didn’t remember which. These days, you saw a lot of churches lying empty or converted to something else. Most of the really religious people Jane knew belonged to some other faith, Buddhist, Gaian, Seven Powers, or what have you. She’d thought more than once recently about visiting the Gaian church up the street. The Gaians took care of their own, and that appealed to her a lot.

She loaded her plate with food, glanced at the window. Warm December rain spattered against it, blurred the windows of the apartment building across the street into vague yellow rectangles and turned the unlit street into pure darkness. Joe Jr. chattered about the slide rule and his hopes of getting an apprenticeship with an engineer someday. Jane glanced across the table at Molly, then, and saw past the taut smile to the too familiar look of disappointment in her eyes.

Somehow that was the thing that brought the memories surging up: memories of Christmas from Jane’s own childhood, when her family lived in a sprawling suburban house and the world still seemed to work. She remembered snowmen in the yard and sled tracks down the street; the big Christmas tree in the corner of a living room bigger than their apartment was now, sparkling with lights and decorations; dinners where even the leftovers made a bigger meal than anyone could eat; driving – in a car, like rich people! – to a bright sprawling place called a shopping mall, where anything you could think of could be bought for money you didn’t even have yet; gifts that didn’t have to have any use in the world except the delight they brought to some child’s eyes; all the extravagant graces of a world that didn’t exist any more.

Tears welled up, but they were tears of anger. Why, goddammit? She flung the question at the memories, the bright clean well-fed faces of her childhood. Why did you have to waste so much and leave so little?

Joe saw the tears, but misread them. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Just like old times.”

She kept her smile in place with an effort. “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Politics: Rebuilding Civil Society

My last two Archdruid Report posts argued that the American political system has wedged itself into the impossible position of trying to sustain an unsustainable empire, along with the even more unsustainable standards of living that the now-departing age of empire fooled Americans into seeing as their birthright. Like the bread and circuses of ancient Rome, the petroleum-fueled prosperity of 20th century America fostered a culture of entitlement in which most citizens believed that they deserved to get whatever they wanted without having to pay the full price for it. One consequence of this cultural shift has been the collapse of democratic politics in the United States.

It’s popular these days to blame this consequence on the machinations of some nefarious elite group or other, but the real responsibility lies elsewhere. Democracy takes work. Casting a ballot in elections once every year or so is not enough to keep it going, though even this minimal investment of time and effort is apparently too much for something like six-tenths of adult Americans. What makes a democratic system operate is personal involvement in the political process on the part of most citizens. Precinct organizations and caucuses, town meetings, and other political activities at the local level formed the indispensible foundation of democratic politics in the days when the United States was not yet an elective oligarchy.

These activities drew on a broader base of local community organizations – churches, civic societies, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons and the Grange, and many others – that rarely engaged in explicit political discussion and activism, but taught skills and made connections that inevitably found their way into a political context. These institutions of civil society created a context in which individuals could orient their lives to the politics of the day, and act in ways that could influence policy all the way up to the national level. People who wrestled with the nuts and bolts of the democratic process in community organizations needed no further education when time came for the precinct caucuses that chose candidates and evolved party platforms.

It’s often claimed by modern writers that these institutions of civil society thrived as they did because people didn’t have anything else to do with their time, but this says more about our own fantasies about the past than it does about historical reality. Most people a century ago worked longer hours than their descendants do today, and the popular media of their time was less technologically complex but no less widely distributed or eagerly sought than ours. The difference lay, rather, in prevailing attitudes. Alexis de Tocqueville famously described early 19th century America as a land of associations, where the needs of society were met, not by government programs or aristocratic largesse, but by voluntary organizations of common people. The civil society of pre-imperial America thrived because people recognized that the social and personal benefits they wanted could only be bought with the coin of their own time and money.

One example worth remembering is the way that fraternal orders, rather than government bureaucracies, provided the social safety net of 19th century America. The Odd Fellows, a fraternal order founded originally in Britain, launched this process shortly after its arrival in the United States in 1819. Odd Fellows lodges in Britain had the useful habit of taking up collections for members in need, especially to cover the living costs of those who had fallen sick – remember, this was long before employers offered sick pay – and to pay the burial costs of those who died. In the American branch of the order, this quickly evolved into a system of weekly assessments and defined benefits.

The way it worked was simple enough. Each member paid in weekly dues – 25 cents a week, roughly the equivalent of $20 a week today, was average – and the money went into a common fund. When a member in good standing became too sick to work, he received regular sick pay and, in most lodges, visits from a physician who received a fixed monthly sum from the lodge in exchange for providing care to all its members. When a member died, his funeral costs were covered by the lodge, and his dependents could count on the support of the lodge in hard cash as well as the less tangible currency of the nationwide Odd Fellows network. By 1900, as a result of this system Odd Fellowship was the largest fraternal order in the world. In that same year more than two thousand American fraternal orders had copied this model, and nearly half of all adult Americans – counting both genders and all ethnic groups, by the way – belonged to at least one fraternal order.

This effective and sustainable system, though, depended on the willingness of very large numbers of Americans to support their local lodges by attending meetings and paying weekly dues. Its equivalents throughout civil society had the same requirements, and with the coming of empire, these turned into a fatal vulnerability. As the profits of American empire made it possible for governments to buy the loyalty of the middle class with unearned largesse, the old system of voluntary organizations lost its support base and withered on the vine. With it perished the local politics of precinct caucuses and town meetings. When participation in the political system stopped being seen as an opportunity to be heard, and turned into an annoyance to be shirked, America’s democracy mutated into today’s system of elective oligarchy.

What happened, in effect, was that most Americans made the consumer economy their model for political participation. A consumer’s role in the economic process is limited to choosing among a selection of lavishly advertised and colorfully marketed products provided by industry. In the same way, most Americans embraced a political system in which all they had to do was choose among a selection of lavishly advertised and colorfully marketed candidates provided by the major parties. It’s not accidental that when people today complain about the low caliber of candidates offered for their vote, their tone and language aren’t noticeably different from those they use when they complain about the low quality of consumer products offered for their purchase. Absent in both cases, too, is any recognition that there might be an alternative to choosing among products somebody else made for them.

Until this attitude changes, nothing will bring back democracy to America. No institutional change, however drastic, will create a democratic nation unless the people of that nation are willing to invest the time, effort, forbearance, and resources that a democratic system needs. Nor, it probably has to be said, will throwing one set of rascals out of office, and replacing them with another set of rascals more to one’s taste, have any noticeable effect on the character of the system as a whole. Until the American people come to the conclusion that the costs of democracy are less burdensome than the costs of doing without it, America will continue to have a government of the people in name only – not because some elite group has taken it away from the people, but because the people themselves have turned their backs on it.

Nor, I think, is there much hope that peak oil, global warming, or any other aspect of our current predicament will induce them to do otherwise. Combine any of these factors with the decline of American empire, and the result you get is a future in which Americans of all classes must get by with a great deal less wealth and leisure than they think they deserve. It seems unlikely that they will respond by giving up even more of their wealth and leisure to renew a dimly remembered democratic system that, despite its many other virtues, offers no hope of regaining these things.

Instead, my guess is that the focus of the next century or so of American politics will be attempts to hang onto as much of the prosperity of empire as possible. Not all these attempts may be as hamfisted as current American foreign policy might suggest, and people of other nations might do well to be wary of proposals for some sort of “world community” emanating from American soil, no matter how apparently liberal the language in which they are phrased. The American people have already faced a choice between democracy and the profits of empire, and we know which one they chose. The fact that they will end up with neither is one of the ironies of history, but I doubt many will see it that way.

What, though, can those who value democracy do within the constraints of a collapsing empire and a declining industrial civilization? The one workable strategy, it seems to me, is rebuilding the foundations of civil society that made American democracy work in the first place. Though it’s unfashionable (and politically incorrect) to suggest this, and doubtless new forms will also need to be evolved, I think that much value remains in the old institutions of American civil society, and in particular in the handful of surviving fraternal orders – the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Grange, and their equivalents. Behind lodge doors, all but forgotten even by the retirees who keep the old lodges going, lies a rich history and a wealth of proven methods that weathered every challenge except that of unearned prosperity.

Those approaches could readily be put to use again. Equally, other dimensions of civil society wait to be rebuilt or reinvented. A great many of the common assumptions of our imperial age will have to go by the boards in this process, however. In particular, the notion of entitlement needs to be an early casualty of the approaching changes. The Odd Fellows and their many equivalents did not dispense charity; they provided a means for those willing to contribute to the common welfare to spread out the risks and share the benefits of life in an uncertain world. Those who did not help others did not get help in their own times of need. This may seem harsh, but in a time of unbending ecological limits, it’s also necessary.

The 19th century was such a time and, given the realities of peak oil, global warming, and the other elements of the predicament of industrial civilization, the 21st century will be no better – and it may be worse. The one question is whether enough people will embrace the challenge of rebuilding civil society in time to make a difference on a community scale, or whether – as in the decline of so many past empires – it will be left up to small groups on the fringes of society to embrace a path of mutual aid and preserve today’s legacies for the future.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Politics: The Eighty Percent Pay Cut

It's a well-known maxim that, in the final analysis, all politics are local. The political dimensions of peak oil are no exception to this rule; for that matter, the global politics surrounding the decline of American empire, the subject of last week's post, draw their force from everyday issues in the lives of 300 million Americans -- not to mention the six billion other human beings on this planet, most of whom must make do with less so that Americans can continue to live their unsustainably extravagant lifestyles.

It’s considered impolite to mention this last detail, of course. The mythology of progress treats it as a temporary state, and claims that someday or other, everyone in the world will be able to live like the affluent middle classes of the world's industrial nations. This faith is so widely held -- at least among those same affluent middle classes -- that few of its believers notice two awkward facts. The first is that the vast majority of the benefits of industrial civilization go to a tiny fraction of the world's population, while nearly all the costs are spread among everyone else. The second is that this state of affairs has persisted throughout the history of industrialism, and shows no signs of changing in the foreseeable future.

In his brilliant 2001 book The Power of the Machine, human ecologist Alf Hornborg argues that the disparities aren’t accidental. An industrial system concentrates resources in what Hornborg calls “centers of accumulation.” Those resources let the industrial system achieve economies of scale and concentrations of influence that distort economic exchanges in its favor. This allows it to gain control over more resources, allowing it to further expand production in a self-reinforcing cycle. The downside is that in a world of finite resources, what’s needed to build the industrial system must be taken from somewhere else, and the return to that “somewhere else” is less than what’s taken by at least the cost of building the industrial system. Thus the centers of accumulation accumulate by impoverishing other regions, classes, or economic sectors.

To see how this works, imagine two equally sized countries, Industria and Agraria, that trade only with each other and have preindustrial economies. One day, however, a rich man in Industria builds a shoe factory that produces as many shoes as the people of Industria can use. The resources demanded by that project equal those used by the local cobblers who used to make Industria's shoes, and any economic gain to Industria from the factory will likely be offset by the losses caused by putting the cobblers out of business. The chief difference is that the wealth once earned by thousands of cobblers now goes to one Industrial magnate, who pays his workers a fraction of what the cobblers once made. His accumulation is their impoverishment.

Then another rich Industrial builds a second shoe factory with equal capacity. Industria's shoe industry can now produce twice as many shoes per year as the Industrials need. This poses a major problem. If both factories produce shoes at full capacity, the law of supply and demand will cut the price of shoes in half, and each magnate will get only half the income the first one had all to himself. The same result follows if both factories work at half capacity. Either case makes it hard to maintain the concentration of resources that makes factories possible at all.

The magnates might hire an advertising firm to convince Industria's citizens that they all need dozens of pairs of new shoes every year, sell surplus shoes to the Industrial government, or make all their shoes so flimsy that every Industrial citizen needs a dozen pairs a year because each pair wears out in a month. All these expedients, though, simply shift the problem to the Industrial economy as a whole, since resources diverted into excess shoe manufacture aren't available for other needs. The solution that avoids this trap is selling excess shoes across the border in Agraria. The result is a net loss to Agraria and a net gain to Industria; Agrarian cobblers go out of business, and most of the money Agrarians spend on shoes goes to Industria instead of staying at home, turning the annual shoe budget of Agraria into a subsidy for the Industrial economy. Industria’s accumulation becomes Agraria’s impoverishment.

If Agraria then decides to build a shoe factory of its own, the project faces a welter of problems. The flow of wealth to Industria makes it harder for the Agrarian economy to gather the resources to build a factory, or maintain it once it’s built. Adding more shoe production brings an oversupply of shoes, launching price wars the Agrarian factory is more likely to lose. If Agraria erects trade barriers against Industrial shoe imports, it might be able to overcome these challenges, but Industria might not sit passively as a rival emerges on its doorstep. Its options range from bribery and manipulation, through economic warfare, to a military solution that makes Agraria a client state in an Industrial empire. The Industrial magnates might even choose to build their own factories in Agraria, especially if Industria’s economic boom makes it difficult to keep wages low there, since the profits from those factories will still come home to Industria. The result, one way or another, is Industrial prosperity built on the foundation of Agrarian impoverishment.

This is a simplified – some would doubtless say oversimplified – version of Hornborg’s carefully reasoned argument. He shows that from the standpoint of human ecology, what’s significant about industrialism is not its relation to technology, or even its dependence on fossil fuels, but its role as a means of creating inequalities of wealth and access to resources between classes, regions, and nations. “Industria” and “Agraria” have different names in the contemporary world, of course: on an international level, they are the industrial nations and the rest of the world; within the United States, they are the coastal urban regions and the impoverished hinterland; within individual communities, they are the investing (that is, middle and upper) classes on the one hand, and the working class on the other. In each case, the industrial system concentrates wealth and access to resources in one at the expense of the other.

This is not the way today’s economists and social theorists like to look at industrialism, to be sure. From their point of view, industrial production yields so much abundance that, in the words of a common cliché, the rising tide of wealth lifts all boats. This assumption requires a second look, though. Leave aside the fact that this abundance is actually the result of burning through the earth’s finite fossil fuel deposits at a reckless rate; in point of historical fact, does the tide of industrialism actually benefit everyone? As Hornborg points out, it does nothing of the kind. Leave out situations where political factors forced redistribution of wealth, such as the New Deal in 1930s America, and the rise of industrial economies produce more disparities in wealth and more impoverishment, not less.

All this is the roundabout but necessary background to understanding one of the most important and least mentioned factors governing local, regional, and national politics at the dawn of the age of peak oil. Among the core factors supporting business as usual in today’s world are unequal exchanges that funnel wealth from the rest of the world to the industrial nations, especially the United States. Those patterns are hardwired into the global economy in the form of wage, price, and interest differentials, and they enable people in the industrial world – again, especially in the United States – to use far more than their share of the world’s resources.

Petroleum, as the most important natural resource in the global economy today, makes a rough but workable surrogate for the entire pattern of unequal access. Right now the United States uses a little over 20 million barrels of oil a day, or about 25% of global production. The US accounts for a little less than 5% of the world’s population. If everyone on the globe had equal access to petroleum, the 5% who are Americans would use around 5% of the world’s oil, or around 20% of what they use today. And the other 80%? That’s a rough first approximation of how much of America’s lifestyle is paid for by impoverishing the rest of the world.

Again, this is not how today’s economists and social theorists prefer to look at the matter. They hold that Americans have simply reached the resource-intensive lifestyle ahead of everyone else, who will eventually all be using resources at an American rate. In a world of finite resources on the brink of peak oil, this is empty fantasy, but let that pass for the moment. Why is the distribution so asymmetrical now? It can hardly be said that the rest of the world has no use or desire for the oil Americans waste so profligately, and the willingness of people elsewhere to work hard and save – supposedly the foundations of prosperity in a capitalist system – far exceeds that of Americans. What keeps people elsewhere from having access to an equal share of oil? Systematic patterns of unequal exchange, hardwired into the global economy.

The dependence of the American standard of living on these patterns of unequal exchange goes far, I think, to explain the remarkable meekness of the political left in this country over the last few decades. It’s one thing to talk about bringing fairness and justice into the world economy, and quite another to face up to the consequences. Again, oil makes a rough but workable surrogate for wealth as a whole. If the United States were to abandon the patterns of unequal exchange that support its current standards of living, its citizens would face something like an 80% reduction in wealth and access to resources.

Put that in everyday terms and the political implications are hard to miss. Imagine that a candidate for public office launched her campaign with a speech announcing that if she were elected, everyone in the country would suffer a permanent 80% pay cut, while prices, interest rates, and outstanding debt would remain as they were before the cut took effect. The pay cut would bite deeper with each passing year, too, to make up for the effects of resource depletion. How many people would vote for such a platform? Would you?

This, in a nutshell, is why no useful response to the current global predicament will come from within the political systems of the world’s industrial countries. Where such a response might come from, and what forms it might take, will be the theme of next week’s post.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Politics: Imperial Sunset

The coming of peak oil is driven by geological factors, not political ones, but the cascade of consequences that will follow the peaking and decline of world petroleum production can’t be understood outside the context of politics, on global, local, and personal scales. As a religious leader who believes devoutly in the separation of church and state, it’s been my practice to keep politics out of these commentaries, in the probably vain hope that other clergypersons will notice one of these days that the barrier between religion and politics is there as much to protect them from politicians as it is to keep them from abusing their own positions. Still, it’s impossible to make sense of peak oil outside of its political context, and so a few words on the subject can’t be avoided here. This is especially true on the global level, the subject of this week’s Archdruid Report, where the preeminent political fact of the age of peak oil is the impending decline – and, at least potentially, the catastrophic collapse – of America’s world empire.

Empires are unfashionable these days, which is why those who support the American empire generally start by claiming that it doesn’t exist, while those who oppose it seem to think that the simple fact of its existence makes it automatically worse than any alternative. I have a hard time finding any worth in either of these views. When the United States maintains military garrisons in more than a hundred nations, supporting a state of affairs that allows the 5% of humanity who are American citizens to monopolize something like a third of the world’s natural resources and industrial production, it’s difficult to discuss the international situation honestly without words like “empire” creeping in, and it requires a breathtaking suspension of disbelief to redefine American foreign policy as the disinterested pursuit of worldwide democracy for its own sake.

Still, portraying American empire as the worst of all possible worlds, a popular sport among intellectuals on the left these days, requires just as much of a leap of faith. If Nazi Germany, say, or the Soviet Union had come out on top in the scramble for global power that followed the decline of the British Empire, the results would certainly have been a good deal worse, and those who currently exercise their freedom to criticize the present empire would face gulags or gas chambers. The lack of any empire at all may very well be a desirable state of affairs, of course, but until our species evolves efficient ways to checkmate the ambitions of one nation to exploit another, that state of affairs is unlikely to obtain this side of Neverland.

The facts of the matter are that ever since transport technology evolved far enough to permit one nation to have a significant impact on another, there have been empires; since the rise of effective maritime transport in the 15th century, those empires have had global reach; and since 1945, when it finished off two of its rivals and successfully contained the third, the United States has maintained a global empire. That empire was as much the result of opportunism, accident and necessity as of any deliberate plan, but it exists, and if it did not exist, some other nation would fill a similar role. So, like it or not, America rules the dominant world empire today – and that will likely become a source of tremendous misfortune for Americans in decades to come.

Partly this comes from the nature of imperial systems, because the pursuit of empire is as self-destructive an addiction as anything you’ll find on the mean streets of today’s inner cities. The systematic economic imbalances imposed on client states by empires, while hugely profitable for the empire’s political class, wreck the economy of the imperial state by flooding its markets with cheap imported goods and its financial system with tribute. Those outside the political class become what A.J. Toynbee, in his A Study of History, calls an internal proletariat, alienated from an imperial system that yields them few benefits and many burdens, while the external proletariat – the people of the client states, whose labor supports the imperial economy but who gain little or nothing in return – respond to their exploitation with a rising spiral of violence that moves from crime through terrorism to open warfare. To counter the twin threats of internal dissidence and external insurgency, the imperial state must divert ever larger fractions of its resources to its military and security forces. Economic decline, popular disaffection, and growing pressures on the borders hollow out the imperial state into a brittle shell of soldiers, spies, and bureaucrats surrounding a society in freefall. When the shell finally cracks – as it always does, sooner or later – nothing is left inside to resist change, and the result is implosion.

It’s possible to halt this process, but only by deliberately stepping back from empire. Britain’s response to its own imperial sunset is instructive; instead of clinging to its empire and being dragged down by it, Britain allied with the rising power of the United States, allowed its colonial holdings to slip away, and managed to keep its economic and political system more or less intact. Compare that to Spain, which had the largest empire on Earth in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 19th century it was one of the poorest countries in Europe, two centuries behind the times economically, racked by civil wars and foreign invasions, and completely incapable of influencing the European politics of the age. The main factor in this precipitous decline was the long-term impact of empire. It’s no accident that Spain’s national recovery only really began after its last overseas colonies were seized by the United States in the Spanish-American war.

In this light, the last quarter century of American policy has been suicidally counterproductive in its attempt to maintain the glory days of empire. That empire rested on three foundations – the immense resource base of the American land, especially its once-huge oil reserves; the vast industrial capacity of what was once America’s manufacturing hinterland and now, tellingly, is known as the Rust Belt; and a canny foreign policy, codified in the early 19th century under the Monroe Doctrine, that distanced itself from Old World disputes and focused on maintaining exclusive economic and military influence over Latin America. With these foundations solidly in place, America could intervene decisively in European affairs in 1917 and 1942, and launch an imperial expansion after 1945 that gave it effective dominance over most of the world.

By 1980, though, the economic impacts of empire had already gutted the American industrial economy – a process that has only accelerated since then – and the new and decisive factor of oil depletion added substantially to the pressures toward decline. A sane national policy in this context might have withdrawn from imperial commitments, shifted the burdens of empire onto a resurgent western Europe, pursued military and economic alliances with rising powers such as China and Brazil, and used the economic and social turmoil set in motion by the energy crises of the 1970s to downshift to less affluent and energy-intensive lifestyles, reinvigorate the nation’s industrial and agricultural economy, and renew the frayed social covenants that united the political class with other sectors of the population in a recognition of common goals.

The realities of American politics, however, kept such a plan out of reach. In a society where competing elite groups buy political power by handing out economic largesse to sectors of the electorate – which is what “liberal democracy” amounts to in practice – the possibility of a retreat from empire was held hostage by a classic prisoner’s dilemma: any elite group willing to put its own short-term advantage ahead of national survival could take and hold power, as Reagan’s Republicans did in 1980, by reaffirming the imperial project and restoring access to the rewards of the tribute economy. For that reason, especially since 2000, the American political class – very much including its “liberal” as well as its “conservative” factions – has backed the survival of America’s global empire by all available means.

This would be disastrous even without the factor of peak oil. No empire, even in its prime, can afford policies that estrange its allies, increase its overseas commitments, make its enemies forget their mutual quarrels and form alliances with one another, and destabilize the world political order, all at the same time. American foreign policy in recent years has accomplished every one of these things, at a time when America’s effective ability to deal with the consequences is steadily declining as its resource base dwindles and the last of its industrial economy fizzles out. To call this a recipe for disaster is to understate the case considerably.

Peak oil, though, is the wild card in the deck, and at this point in the game it’s a card that can only be played to America’s detriment. To an extent few people realize, every aspect of American empire – from the trade networks that extract wealth from America’s client states to the military arsenal that projects its power worldwide – depends on cheap abundant petroleum. As the first nation to systematically exploit its petroleum reserves on a large scale, the United States floated to victory in two world wars on a sea of oil, and learned the lesson that the way to win wars was to use more energy than the other side. That was possible in the first half of the 20th century, when America was the world’s largest oil producer and exporter. It became problematic in the 1970s, when domestic oil production peaked and began to decline, while consumption failed to decline in step and made America dependent on imports. The arrival of worldwide peak oil completes the process by making America’s energy-intensive model of empire utterly unsustainable.

How that process will play out is anyone’s guess at this point. What worries me most, though, is the possibility that it could have a very substantial military dimension. The US military’s total dependence on energy-intensive high technology could too easily become a double-edged sword if the resources needed to sustain the technology run short or become suddenly unavailable, and its investment – economic as well as intellectual – in a previously successful model of warfare could turn into a fatal distraction if new conditions make that model an anachronism.

Any student of history knows that people in each age tend to overestimate the solidity of the familiar, and are commonly taken by surprise when the foundations of an established order melt out from beneath them. The possibility that the global political scene could change out of all recognition in the aftermath of military catastrophe is hard to dismiss, and if that happens those of us who live in today’s United States could be facing a very rough road indeed.