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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Predictions and Predicaments

The Rapture came and went this past weekend, and while only a small minority of people were really duped into disappointment by the non-event, it was a telling event – or at least the disproportionate amount of media attention that it received (as is to be expected in this day and age) was telling: apparently Apocalypse still captures the collective imagination. It certainly has been a salient concept all my life given that I was born into the era known as the Cold War. In my youth Ronald Reagan lead the “Free world” and I remember having nightmares with mushroom clouds along the horizon. Unlike the president however I was not of the opinion that nuclear Armageddon was a good thing for a chosen segment of humanity. Even though the threat of all-out nuclear war no longer really provides the backdrop for these doomsday scenarios, it seems there is no shortage of fodder for those who wish to whip up some anxiety and panic, this latest attempt being, well, only the latest attempt.
I tend to agree with John Michael Greer’s view that apocalypse mythology is firmly rooted in the collective consciousness because it exempts the believers from taking any responsibility for apparent disastrous destiny that is in store for them. If it’ll all come crashing down tomorrow, well then, one need not bother taking even the first steps of assessing and addressing the myriad problems before us. Especially if one’s brand of metaphysics provides for magical salvation in the blink of an eye.
Of course, doomsday scenarios are not just reserved to the religious fanatic camp. Plenty of secular, science-based stories have emerged out of Hollywood, and out of the environmental movement itself that tell a similar story: there is cataclysmic disaster on its way (whether it be an asteroid, alien invasions, or sudden and drastic climate change). The main difference in the secular camp, is that it’s usually human bravery and ingenuity (especially technology) that will come in and save the day at the eleventh hour and 59th minute. Hooray! Notice again that there’s little pressure for the passive observer to feel the need to assess or address the problems before them: the famous “they” will come up with the equally famous “something”.
We should know better, since history tells another story. We should know that fanatical religious predictions are always dead wrong. And we should know that when it comes to social and economic predicaments such as Global Warming and Peak Oil, closing our eyes and hoping for – or otherwise counting on some technological fix to suddenly take shape in short order is not the “grown-up” way of assessing and addressing the problems before us.
We should all know that shit happens too: extraordinary shit happens in these extraordinary times. These times are extraordinary because we are witness to the largest human population in recorded history; we are in the midst of pushing unprecedented levels of resource consumption and depletion; we are causing the greatest amount of species extinction that perhaps the world has ever known; and what’s more, current rates of cultural extinction in the form of language loss and the disappearance of indigenous traditions is also unprecedented – perhaps the most troubling symptom of all.
When natural disasters or man-made environmental disasters occur nowadays, there’s an all-too-good chance that the scale of it too will be unprecedented: industrial projects are scaled to match growing demand, and the growing disparity between the world’s rich minority and the enormous population of the utterly poor, means that vulnerability is in no short supply.
The fossil fuel-driven industrial project that began some three hundred years ago is now at its height, and despite its tragic flaws, its fatal problems, and its often destructive objectives, it has a hell of a lot of momentum left.
And so life goes on.
Incredibly, we seem to be able to convince ourselves of the normality of it all, even though there is very little about our global arrangements that are consistent with the long-term historic norm. For all our astounding accomplishments and advances, perhaps more astounding is that we have actually been able to ratchet up industrial activity to a level that runs up against the global limits to growth. This is what defines our era: unprecedented everything.
As unprecedented as things may be, Nature’s limits are still hard limits, and we likely have crossed a tipping point where, slowly, henceforth things will start to get weird and eventually very weird, and even more fucked-up as we return to something like historic normal. After all, we do know from history how a handful of civilizations have peaked and disintegrated: civilisations that outstrip their resource base and fail to meet its basic energy needs generally crumble one way or another. What does this tell us about the present situation? The truth is that no-one knows exactly how a global petro-civilization falls, because a global petro-civilization has never existed before.
Probably historic normal is a long way away, but we are back on our way down the mountain to the valley where it resides. This is why I say these times are extraordinary even if we’ll not see that change overnight.
It may sound to you that I’m playing the prediction game that I criticize at the outset of this essay. But I hope to clarify precisely why this is not the case: I consider the future to be an open and unpredictable story subject to completely random events, to which humanity’s reaction is just as unpredictable.
Still, it is worth noting that some predictions about the future are worth taking note of, at least while looking in the proverbial rear-view mirror. Readers who are familiar with the story of Peak Oil will have perhaps anticipated this conclusion with my above reference to a historic “tipping-point.”
Back in the late forties and early fifties an oil geologist by the name of M. King Hubbert accurately predicted the overall peak of petroleum production in the lower 48 states to be around 1970. He also fairly accurately predicted that the global peak would come around the turn of the millennium. It appears now that that peak occurred in 2006.
Now it’s up to us to determine what the consequences and implications of that historic tipping point might be. There is not as of yet, a consensus by any stretch – responses have ranged from doomsday scenarios through to flat out denial. For my part, I have come to believe the implications are of no small magnitude: that a civilisation dependent on economic growth, which in turn is dependent on petroleum has to take very seriously any indication that supply is entering its depletion phase. If recent events in the climate change arena are any indication, we may, sadly, fail to do so in any concerted, comprehensive, timely or otherwise meaningful way. So the question remains: what on Earth will we do?
This blog will try to pick up where the original kyotomotors project stopped (more on this later), in a series of opinion pieces that will try to suggest constructive answers to this big question.
More to come...