Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Alternatives to Nihilism, Part Three: Remember Your Name

A bit of retrospective may be useful at this point, as we close in on the core of the argument I’ve been developing here. The first post in this series, “A Dog Named Boo,” explored the sudden turn toward nihilism that seized America’s culture and public imagination in the wake of the Seventies; the second, “Lead Us Away From Here,” analyzed the fantasy of elite omnipotence and public powerlessness that became conventional wisdom straight across the political spectrum in the wake of that shift.

The connection between the shift and the fantasy may not be instantly obvious to all my readers, but it can be made a good deal clearer by looking more closely at what happened as the Seventies ended and our society’s thirty-year vacation from reality began. During the Seventies, a great many Americans came face to face with the hard fact that they could have the comfortable and privileged lifestyles they were used to having, or they could guarantee a livable world for their grandchildren, but they couldn’t do both. The vast majority of them – or, more precisely, of us – chose the first option and closed their eyes to the consequences. That mistake was made for understandable and profoundly human reasons, but it was still a mistake, and it haunts the American imagination to this day.

The impact of that choice is perhaps easier to trace on the conservative end of America’s social and political spectrum. Forty years ago, the Republicans had at least as good a record on environmental issues as the Democrats, and the idolatry of the unrestrained free market that pervades the American right these days was a fringe ideology widely, and rightly, considered suspect by most conservatives. For that matter, creationism and speculations about the imminence of the End Times were consigned to the fringes by most American Christians, who by and large considered them irrelevant to the task of living a life centered on the teachings of the Christian gospel.

All these things changed in a hurry at the end of the Seventies. Why? Because the attitudes that replaced them – the shrill insistence that the environment doesn’t matter, that the free market will solve every problem, that the world was created in 4004 BCE with as much oil, coal, and gas as God wants us to have, and that the world will end in our lifetimes so our grandchildren won’t have to deal with the mess we’d otherwise be leaving them – are all attempts to brush aside the ugly fact that the choices made at the end of the Seventies, and repeated by most Americans at every decision point since then, have cashed in the chance of a better future for our grandchildren, and spent the proceeds on an orgy of consumption in the present.

The squirmings of the leftward end of American culture and politics are a little subtler, since the Left by and large responded to the end of the Seventies by clinging to its historic ideals, while quietly shelving any real attempt to do anything about them. It’s discomfort with this response that leads so many people on the Left to insist angrily that they’ve done all they can reasonably be expected to do about the environment, in the midst of pursuing a lifestyle that’s difficult to distinguish, on any basis but that of sheer fashion, from that of their Republican neighbors. It also drives the frankly delusional insistence on the part of so many people on today’s Left that everyone on Earth can aspire to a middle class American lifestyle if the evil elites already discussed would simply let it happen, and the equally, if more subtly, delusional claim that some suite of technologies currently in the vaporware stage will permit the American middle class to have its planet and eat it too.

Look beyond the realm of partisan quarrels and the same deeply troubled conscience appears over and over again in American life. Consider, as one example out of many, the way that protecting children turned from a reasonable human concern to an obsessive-compulsive fixation. Raised under the frantic surveillance of helicopter moms, forbidden from playing outside or even visiting another child’s home except on the basis of a prearranged and parentally approved play date, a generation of American children were held hostage by a galaxy of parental terrors that have only the most distorted relationship to reality, but serve to distract attention from the fact that the lifestyles chosen by these same parents were condemning their children to a troubled and dangerous life in a depleted, polluted, and impoverished world.

The irony reached a dizzying intensity as tens of thousands of American parents rushed out to buy SUVs to transport their children to places every previous generation of American children proved perfectly capable of reaching by themselves on foot or on bike. It became the conventional wisdom, during the peak of the SUV craze, that the safety provided to young passengers by these massive rolling fortresses justified their purchase. No one wanted to deal with the fact that it was precisely the lifestyle exemplified by the SUV that was, and remains, the single most pressing threat to children’s long-term safety and welfare.

A great many of the flailings and posturings that have defined American culture from the Eighties to the present, in other words, unfolded from what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith” – the unspoken awareness, however frantically denied or repressed, that the things that actually mattered were not things anyone was willing to talk about, and that the solutions everyone wanted to discuss were not actually aimed at their putative targets. The lie at the heart of that bad faith was the desperate attempt to avoid facing the implications of the plain and utterly unwelcome fact that there is no way to make a middle class American lifestyle sustainable.

Let’s repeat that, just for the sake of emphasis: there is no way to make a middle class American lifestyle sustainable.

That’s the elephant in the living room, the thing that most of a nation has been trying not to see, and not to say, for so many years. The middle class American lifestyle, to borrow and extend Jim Kunstler’s useful decription of suburbia, is an arrangement without a future; it’s utterly dependent on the rapid exploitation of irreplaceable resources, and the longer that it’s pursued, and the more people pursue it, the worse the consequences will be for children now living, and for a great many generations not yet born. It really is as simple as that.

Now it’s not at all hard to find books, films, websites, and speakers who say as much, but it’s intriguing to watch how universally these avoid the next logical step. What do you do if you’re pursuing a way of life that has no future? Well, apparently you read books denouncing that way of life, or heap praise on cultures conveniently distant in space or time that you think had or have or will have a different way of life, or engage in token activities intended to show that your heart really isn’t in that way of life, or vent your rage against whoever it is that you blame for your decision to keep on following that way of life, or fixate with increasing desperation on manufactured prophecies insisting that the Rapture or the Singularity or the space brothers or somebody, anybody, will bring that way of life to an end for you so that you don’t have to do it yourself.

The one thing you apparently don’t do is the one thing that actually matters, which is changing the way you live here and now.

That’s the rock on which the sustainability movement of the Seventies broke, and it’s claimed plenty of victims since then. The climate change movement is a good recent example. Now it’s true that there were plenty of reasons why the climate change movement followed the trajectory it did from apparent unstoppability a decade ago to its current dead-in-the-water status today. The ingenuousness with which climate change activists allowed their opponents to redefine the terms of the debate very nearly at will, and the movement’s repeated attempts to rest its arguments on the faltering prestige of science in an age when most Americans are well aware that scientific opinions can be purchased to order for the cost of a modest grant, did not help the cause any.

Still, I’ve come to think that the Achilles’ heel of the entire movement was the simple fact that none of its spokespersons showed any willingness to embrace the low-energy lifestyle they insisted the rest of the world had to adopt. Al Gore, with his sprawling air-conditioned mansion and his frequent jet trips, was the poster child here, but he had plenty of company. It was because climate change activists so often failed to walk their talk, I suggest, that millions of Americans decided they must be making the whole thing up, just as the obvious eagerness of the United States to push carbon limits on every other nation while refusing to accept them at home convinced China among others that the global warming crusade was simply one more gimmick to prop up the crumbling edifice of American hegemony, and brought the movement toward a worldwide carbon treaty to the standstill where it remains today.

The same blind spot continues to plague what’s left of the climate change movement. Consider former environmentalist Stewart Brand, who used to edit The Whole Earth Catalog, for heaven’s sake. Brand’s current position, retailed at length in his recent book Whole Earth Discipline, is that we have to run our economy on nuclear power because burning coal is bad for the environment. Now of course this argument is right up there with insisting that shooting yourself through the head is good for your health because it prevents you from dying of a heart attack, but there’s a deeper irrationality here. Ironically, it’s one that most people who had copies of The Whole Earth Catalog on their shelves forty years ago could have pointed out in a Sausalito minute: switching from one complex, centralized, environmentally destructive energy system based on nonrenewable and rapidly depleting resources, to another energy system that can be described in exactly the same terms, is not a useful step – especially when it would be perfectly possible to dispense with both by simply using less energy.

Now of course the concept of using less of anything is about as popular in contemporary America as garlic aioli at a convention of vampires. Nobody wants to be reminded that using less, so that our grandchildren would have enough, was the road we didn’t take at the end of the Seventies. Still, the road we did take was always destined to be a dead end, and as we move deeper into the first half of the twenty-first century, the end of that road is starting to come into sight. At this point, we’re faced with the prospect of using less energy, not because we choose to do so but because the energy that would be needed to do otherwise isn’t there any more. That’s the problem with living as though there’s no tomorrow, of course: tomorrow inevitably shows up anyway.

This late in the game, our remaining options are starkly limited, and most of the proposals you’ll hear these days are simply variations on the theme of chasing business as usual right over the nearest cliff. Whether it’s Stewart Brand’s nukes, “Drill Baby Drill,” ethanol or algal biodiesel or some other kind of energy vaporware, the subtext to every widely touted response to our predicament is that we don’t need to use less. The same thing’s just as true of most of the ideologies that claim to offer a more global response to that predicament; the one common thread that unites the neoprimitivists who claim to long for a return to the hunter-gatherer life, the conspiracy theorists who spend their days in an increasingly frantic orgy of fingerpointing, and the apocalypticists who craft ever more elaborate justifications for the claim that somebody or other will change the world for us, is that each of these ideologies, and plenty others like them, function covertly as justifications to allow believers to keep on living an ordinary American lifestyle right up to the moment that it drops away from beneath their feet.

The one option that doesn’t do this is the one next to nobody is willing to talk about, and that’s the option of using less.

Mention that option in public, and inevitably you’ll hear a dozen different reasons why it can’t help and won’t matter and isn’t practical anyway. Can it help? Of course it can; in a time when world crude oil production has been bouncing against a hard ceiling for most of a decade and most other energy sources are under growing strain, any decrease in the amount of energy being wasted on nonessentials makes it a little easier to keep essential services up and running. Will it matter? Of course it will; as we move into a future of hard energy constraints, the faster at least a few people get through the learning curve of conservation, appropriate tech, and simply making do with less, the easier it will be for the rest of society to follow their lead and learn from their experience, if only when all the other choices have been foreclosed. Is it practical? Of course it is; the average European gets by comfortably on one third the annual energy budget as the average American, and it’s been my experience that most middle class Americans can slash their energy use by a third or more in one year by a relatively simple program of home weatherizing and lifestyle changes.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that at this point in the trajectory of industrial civilization, any proposal that doesn’t make using less energy a central strategy simply isn’t serious. It’s hard to think of any dimension of our predicament that can’t be bettered, often dramatically, by using less energy, and even harder to think of any project that will yield significant gains as long as Americans cling to a lifestyle that history is about to relegate to the compost bin. I’d also like to suggest that any proposal that does start out with using less energy should not be taken seriously until and unless the people proposing it actually do use less energy themselves, preferably by adopting the measures they urge on others.

That’s how effective movements for social change happen, after all. Individuals start them by making changes in their own lives; as the number of people making those changes grows, networks emerge to share information, resources, and encouragement; the networks become the frame of a subculture, and as momentum builds, the subculture becomes a movement. It’s indicative that the two movements that had the most impact on American culture in the second half of the twentieth century – feminism and Christian fundamentalism – both emerged this way, starting with individuals who changed their own lives, while any number of movements that tried to make change from the top down – again, the climate change movement is a good example – failed to achieve their ends.

That’s the core concept behind the “green wizardry” I’ve been discussing here on The Archdruid Report for almost a year now. It’s entirely possible for each of us to kick the process just described into motion by using less energy and fewer natural resources in our own lives. There are proven methods and mature technologies that will accomplish that. It so happens that I learned some of those back in the early 1980s, and have a couple of decades of experience applying them in my own life. That’s been the basis on which I’ve selected the tools and techniques discussed here; for reasons already explained, I don’t think it’s useful to advocate things I haven’t used myself.

The one great barrier in the path of starting a movement the right way, beginning on the individual level, is that it requires each person who takes up the challenge to break with the conventional wisdom and do things that others aren’t prepared to do. That’s a lonely journey, no question, and since this series of posts began with a bit of Seventies music, I don’t think it’s out of place to end it with the most famous desert journey from the music of that era. To borrow a turn of phrase from the song, that loneliness can be a place to remember our names or, more precisely, to recall that we have names other than "consumer" and "victim."

It’s my hope that at least some of the people who read this post will rise to that challenge. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and there may not be much time to get it started before conditions become a good deal more difficult than they are right now. I’ll be discussing that last point in more detail in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Alternatives to Nihilism, Part Two: Lead Us Away From Here

An irony I’ve had the chance to relish repeatedly, over the five years or so since The Archdruid Report first ventured onto the blogosphere, is the extraordinary grip of convention and conformity on exactly those sectors of American society that take the most pride in their rejection of convention and conformity. It’s reminiscent of the scene from the Monty Python film Life of Brian in which a crowd of adoring followers, told that they are all individuals, chants back in perfect unison, “Yes, we are all individuals!”

It’s easy enough to laugh, but there’s much to be learned from the beliefs that are taken for granted by those who insist they take nothing for granted. The subject of today’s post is one of those, one that’s deeply entangled with the cult of nihilism I dissected in last week’s essay. It’s a credo that’s embraced with equal enthusiasm straight across the political spectrum from left to right, and from the middle of the road out as far toward the fringes as you care to look. There are few better examples of groupthink in contemporary American life, and yet nearly all the people who accept the notions I have in mind are convinced that they’re rebelling against conformity by conforming to a belief system shared by nearly everybody else in the country.

The credo in question? It’s the belief that all the decisions that really matter in the United States today are made by a small elite, insulated from the democratic process, who are pursuing policies that would be rejected by the American people if the latter had the chance to make up their own minds.

Those of my readers who happen to be Democrats may find it educational to sit down sometime with a stalwart Republican, perhaps over a couple of beers, and ask whether this is the case. You can count on getting an earful about the corrupt liberal elite that pulls all the strings in this country. If any of my readers happen to be Republican, and try the same experiment in reverse, they can expect an equal and opposite earful about the corrupt corporate elite that pulls all the strings in this country. Step outside the two main parties and ask the same question, and you’ll get at least thirty-one different flavors of the same claim, topped off, perhaps, by some follower of David Icke insisting that the corrupt elite that pulls all the strings is actually the cabal of evil space lizards that Ickes appears to have lifted from one too many viewings of the otherwise forgettable Eighties science fiction TV series V.

Nearly everyone agrees, in other words, that there’s a corrupt elite pulling the strings, even though no two factions can agree on who it is and what they want. Next to nobody challenges the assumption that democracy is a charade controlled by unseen hands. Still, I’m convinced that it’s high time to question that assumption, and to trace out its links to the cult of nihilism and the profoundly troubled national conscience that have exercised a corrosive influence on this country since the end of the Seventies.

It’s probably necessary to say right off that challenging the credo I’ve outlined here does not require believing in the fairy tale version of democracy too many schools still insist on dishing up to our children, in an apparent attempt to apply Huckleberry Finn’s famous definition of faith – "believing what you know ain’t so" – to the political sphere. In the real world, a democratic society is not a Utopia that guarantees everyone perfect liberty and equality. Rather, it’s simply one way of managing the chore of making collective decisions, in the context of a society that – like all human societies everywhere – distributes wealth, power, rights, and responsibilities unequally among its citizens. I tend to think that democracy deserves our support because, by and large, it produces fewer and less drastic human rights violations and allows somewhat more individual freedom than the alternatives, but those are relative distinctions, not absolutes, and democracy also has a bumper crop of problems of its own that are hardwired into its basic architecture.

For instance, democracies always have severe problems with corruption, because democracy is one of the few systems of government in which the rich aren’t automatically the ones who make collective decisions. In a hereditary aristocracy, say, the people who have the political authority also have most of the national wealth, and thus can afford the disdain for the merely rich that aristocrats so often affect. In a democracy, by contrast, there are always people who have wealth but want influence, and people who have power but want money, and the law of supply and demand takes it from there. Those who claim that the existence of political corruption in America shows that it’s no longer a democracy thus have the matter exactly backwards; it’s precisely because American national, state and local governments are more or less democratic that corruption flourishes here, as it has in nearly every other democracy on record.

There are plenty of other problems endemic to democracies. A glance over the ancient Greek literature on the subject, just for starters, will provide any of my readers who are curious about this with an uncomfortably exact autopsy of the current problems of American politics. Still, the most important problem with democracy is one that’s inseparable from the basic idea of handing decision-making over to the citizens as a whole, because no law of nature requires a majority to be right.

Now it’s central to most versions of the credo of elite rule I mentioned earlier in this post to claim that the majority is so thoroughly manipulated by the corrupt (insert partisan label here) elite pulling all the strings in this country that it can’t make up its own mind about anything that matters, and simply follows the lead of the elite. Democrats, Republicans, believers in evil space lizards, and nearly everyone else pass easily from this claim to the insistence that if the majority was able to think for itself, it would back the Democrats, Republicans, believers in evil space lizards, or whoever else happens to be speaking at the time. This may in itself suggest one of the motives for this very comforting notion, but there may be more going on here than simple sour grapes.

There is, to be sure, plenty of manipulation of the public in America, as in any other democracy, for reasons identical to those behind the prevalence of corruption in democratic systems. At any given time, there may be a couple of dozen organized groups or more trying to push some set of ideas on the public by fair means or foul. What is not often recognized is that the public is not merely a passive participant in this process. Multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns routinely flop because the American public, motivated by its habitual perversity, shrugs and walks away from the most carefully crafted marketing pitch to embrace some fad or fashion nobody on Madison Avenue saw coming. That is to say, manipulation works in both directions; those people who try to bend public opinion to their own ends can succeed only by telling the public what it wants to hear.

The same thing is equally true in politics, as a glance over the history of the last half dozen decades of American political life will show clearly enough. Perhaps the best example of all is the abandonment of the movement toward sustainability in the wake of the Seventies.

That movement was backed by a loose coalition with diverse and often conflicting goals, and it faced strident opposition from a large sector of the public, but it had the support of government officials who were worried about the price of dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and who also felt the perennial need of politicians to appear to be doing something about the crisis du jour, which at that point was the high cost of energy. Some members of both parties opposed the movement, though others on both sides of the aisle backed it; some corporate interests opposed it, while others recognized that alternative energy just might turn out to be the next big thing. The entire movement, however, was based all along on the gamble that the American public would be willing to tighten its belt and plunge into the transition to an ecotechnic society even when the bills started coming due in earnest.

On the other side of the game was a coterie of Republican politicians and strategists who guessed that when push came to shove, the American public would crumple. When a chapter of accidents put their candidate into the White House, they bet the future of their party on that guess, and won. The election that mattered here wasn’t Reagan’s relatively narrow victory in 1980, but his landslide in 1984, when most of the nation registered its approval of a policy shift that spared them the costs of the transition to sustainability. It was after the latter election that the axe came down on funding for appropriate tech, and Woodsy Owl’s iconic "Give a hoot – don’t pollute!" ads vanished from the airwaves.

Notice also what happened as the Eighties unfolded. It wasn’t just the American public that crumpled; the sustainability movement did, too. There were some who stayed the course, who saw that the plunge in energy prices bought by breakneck pumping of the North Slope and North Sea oil fields would turn out to be one of history’s classic short-term fixes, and kept the green flame lit. Still, by and large, most of the people who had been subscribers to Rain and Coevolution Quarterly, and had been nervously trying to work up the courage to accept the restricted lifestyles they knew would be required , talked themselves into believing that the time for that was over. Several commenters on last week’s post have recalled the guilty relief with which they, and so many other people, welcomed the end of gas lines and the return of cheap gasoline; it was a common sentiment at the time.

The price for that failure, though, was not limited to the collapse of a movement that might just have gotten us through the end of the petroleum age without a long and bitter age of contraction. The payoff the Reagan administration offered the American people was the same unearned prosperity that wrecks most democracies in the end. That payoff was cashed in, in turn, by cultivating a degree of fiscal irresponsibility no previous American administration had ever considered: cutting taxes, increasing government payouts, and simply borrowing the difference.

When the aftershocks of the dizzying 1987 stock market crash made the first Bush administration veer slightly in the direction of fiscal prudence, in turn, the mild economic contraction that followed was more than enough to allow Clinton to breeze to victory in 1992 with a platform that amounted to very little more than "I’ll make you richer than he will." That’s been the model of American politics ever since; it’s not accidental that the Republican and Democratic plans to "decrease the deficit" under discussion at this moment both involve big increases in government spending, because bribing the electorate and inflating financial bubbles for their benefit are essential to get or keep office these days.

It’s in this light that the behavior of the two main American political parties over the last thirty years needs to be understood. Since 1984, the Democrats’ strategy has been to denounce the Republicans during each presidential campaign and then, once in office, copy GOP policies letter for letter, with the occasional sop thrown to their erstwhile allies now and then for form’s sake. The hangdog, foot-scuffing spinelessness displayed repeatedly by Democratic politicians in the face of Republican pressure, I’ve come to believe, has its roots here; it’s hard to stand firm against the opposition if you’re covertly imitating all its policies.

The Republicans, for their part, have traveled an even longer road from their roots than the Democrats. Fifty years ago, the GOP was the party of small government, fiscal prudence, local autonomy, and a healthy distrust of foreign military adventures; for that matter, from the founding of the National Parks by Theodore Roosevelt to the sweeping environmental reforms enacted by Nixon, the GOP had at least as good a record on environmental issues as the Democrats. Had a delegate to a 1960 GOP county convention proposed today’s Republican policies, in other words, he would have been thrown out of the hall with enough force to leave a faceprint on the pavement. The near-total betrayal of its historic commitments and ideals by today’s GOP has left deep scars; I suspect that the shrill fury with which so many Republican spokespeople denounce everyone else comes from the deep and unadmitted discomfort they feel at that betrayal, and their own complicity in it.

Finally, the behavior of the Bush and Obama administrations in the wake of the 2008 crash needs to be understood in a very different sense than it’s usually given. Much of the economic history of the last thirty years has been driven by the need for the political establishment to keep giving the American public what it demanded, even when those demands could only be met by a series of increasingly risky high-stakes gambles and dubiously legal expedients. The borrow-and-spend Republicans of the Reagan years relied on the ability of global capital markets to absorb an endless supply of US Treasury debt, but the imbalances set in motion by that decision forced each administration deeper into market manipulations than the last.

The huge financial corporations that played so central a role in the housing bubble, and are equally central to the current attempt to inflate a new bubble, are by all accounts key players in these schemes. Certainly there’s plenty of corruption involved – again, that’s endemic to democracy – and huge and arguably dishonest fortunes are being made, but there’s also the hard fact that the big banks have become crucial organs of US economic policy and will be propped up by any means necessary as long as their usefulness remains. That policy has many goals, to be sure, but maintaining the facade of American prosperity demanded by the electorate, long after every real basis for that prosperity has evaporated, ranks well up among them.

Does all this mean that the electorate is uniquely responsible for what happened in the wake of the Seventies? It’s hard to think of any sense in which that notion could have meaning. An entire nation made a disastrous wrong turn at that time; millions of people, each in his or her own way, contributed to that wrong turn, and very, very few opposed it. At this stage in the game, trying to affix blame to any narrower subset of the nation may be popular but it’s also useless, as it simply feeds the nihilism this series of posts is anatomizing. Clinging to the fashionable belief in the omnipotence of evil elites is the extreme form of that blame game, and even more useless than most of the others. The hard but necessary task before us, instead, is to come to terms with the fact that our nation made a catastrophic mistake thirty years ago, and that most of us who were alive at that time either backed that mistake or acquiesced in it.

Ironically enough, given that this series of posts started with a reference to a bit of Seventies popular music, it was another Seventies band – Styx, in the closing lines of the 1975 hit Suite Madam Blue – that did as good a job as anyone of stating the challenge we as a nation faced at the close of that decade:

America, America, America, America
Red White and Blue
Gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child any more
Red White and Blue
Your future is all but past
So lift up your heart
And make a new start
Lead us away from here

We failed that challenge then. In the final part of this series of posts, we’ll talk about the options for meeting it now.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Alternatives to Nihilism, Part One: A Dog Named Boo

"Where do you get your ideas?" is a question that most writers fairly often field, and generally dread. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison is just about the only person in print with a ready answer; he used to state crisply – for all I know, he still does – that a little old lady in Poughkeepsie, New York sends him a weekly manila envelope full of story ideas. The rest of us are left to fumble with the difficult task of explaining the tangled roots of creativity.

Still, there are times when it’s an easy question to answer, and for me, at least, this week is one of those. The idea behind this Archdruid Report post came from a comment on last week’s post, made on Energy Bulletin’s repost by a commenter who used the name "pulltheweeds." My post was a comparison of today’s vacuous political rhetoric on energy with the more pragmatic and effective responses that were pioneered during the energy crisis of the Seventies. The comment in its entirety – I’ve taken the liberty of adding such old-fashioned conveniences as capitals and punctuation – was this: "The days of ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo’ are over."

To some extent, that was simply another example of the sort of internet witticism that’s designed to score points instead of addressing an argument. Equally, it’s a fine example of unintentional irony, since the Seventies hit it referenced was an open-road song that celebrated the freedom that cheap abundant petroleum briefly gave to footloose young Americans. In that sense, the comment is quite correct; the days of "another tank of gas and then back on the road again," to quote the song, are over for good.

Still, that wasn’t what "pulltheweeds" was saying, of course. What he or she was suggesting was that the conservation and alternative-energy technologies I discussed in last week’s post were the products of an aspect of American popular culture that flourished in the Seventies, and died a wretched death in the decades that followed. The homebuilt solar panels, hand-typed guides to insulation and weatherstripping, basement-workshop inventions, lively little nonprofits running on raw enthusiasm and shoestring budgets, and the rest of the landscape of the Seventies appropriate-tech scene drew on the same cultural current that made "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo" a hit, and also, however briefly, had quite a few Americans thinking about living with a lot less energy and a lot fewer resources as an adventure rather than a fate worse than death.

It’s easy to make fun of the excesses and eccentricities of the era: the air of well-scrubbed, fresh-faced innocence, say, that was so assiduously cultivated by the exact equivalents of those who now cultivate an equally artificial aura of sullen despair. Still, the 15% drop in America’s petroleum consumption that took place between 1975 and 1985, coupled with equally sharp declines in other forms of energy use, might suggest that the John Denver fans of that time, with their granny glasses and dogs sporting brightly colored bandannas in place of collars, had something going for them that today’s supposedly more sophisticated culture has not been able to match so far. The shift from the one to the other set of cultural themes may have more to do with that difference in outcomes than is often recognized, and that possibility is one that needs to be explored.

That is to say, we need to talk about the roots of the contemporary American cult of nihilism.

I don’t think that last phrase is too extreme a description. For the last few decades, it’s been hugely fashionable in America to believe, or at least affect to believe, the cynical notions that all ideals are frauds or delusions, that those who try to live up to them are either posturing liars or simple-minded fools, and that we might as well enjoy ugliness because all beauty is by definition fake. Watching this week’s idols dragged down to the lowest common denominator by yet another wretched scandal has become America’s most popular spectator sport. Meanwhile, and crucially, the notion that the American people might face a challenge, any challenge, by rising to the occasion, much less might reasonably be encouraged to do so, gets dismissed out of hand by pundits, politicians, and ordinary people alike when it’s mentioned at all. This wasn’t always the case, and as this nation and the industrial world as a whole lurches blindly toward a set of challenges right up there with anything in the last five thousand years or so of recorded history, it bears asking why a rallying of the nation’s will and potential that would have been an obvious part of a response to crisis fifty years ago is so unthinkable now.

It’s useful, in making sense of this cultural shift, to remember that there are at least two kinds of cynicism. There’s the kind – variously weary, amused, hurt, or icily dangerous – that comes naturally to those who have too often seen others betray their ideals. Then there’s the other kind – sullen, jeering, brittle, and defensive – that comes just as naturally to those who betray their own ideals, and makes them lash out angrily whenever anything too reminiscent of that betrayal flicks them on the raw. It’s the latter kind, I’m convinced, that shapes the mood of America today; the disquieting sounds that murmur through the crawlspaces of our collective imagination, waking us abruptly at night, are the echoes of a profoundly troubled national conscience.

For another measure of the same troubled conscience, think of the extraordinary reach of conspiracy theories of all kinds through American culture. These days, if you hear people talking about any of the problems or predicaments that beset our society, it’s normally a safe bet that the conversation will end up fixating on some group of people whose monstrous wickedness is allegedly the cause of it all. Democrats talk that way about Republicans, and Republicans about Democrats, while those who have abandoned the grinning corpse of America’s once-vital political culture have their own colorfully stocked rogues’ galleries of alleged villains to offer.

Any of my readers who would like to see how much of this fixation on hunting for scapegoats unfolds from an uneasy conscience need only suggest in public that ordinary Americans might bear some modest degree of responsibility for the unwelcome trends of the last few decades. The shrillness with which most Americans will insist that all the blame lies elsewhere makes it tolerably clear just how sensitive a nerve has been touched. What Carl Jung called "projecting the shadow" has become a potent political reality in America, but you don’t need a degree in Jungian psychoanalysis to realize that people who spend their lives pointing fingers at other people are trying to paste a villain’s mask on the rest of the world in order to avoid seeing it when they look in the mirror.

A third measure? Consider the contemporary American obsession with apocalyptic fantasies. Back of all the gaudy claims of history’s end currently on display – the Rapture, the Singularity, the supposed end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, and all the rest of it – is a frantic insistence that we don’t have to live with the consequences of our collective actions. That’s the common thread that connects the seeming optimism of the claim that Jesus or the Space Brothers or superintelligent computers will fix things, on the one hand, with the seeming pessimism of the claims that we’re all about to be wiped out by solar flares or asteroid bombardment or the evil plans of the Illuminati. Either way, the world that our choices have made is not the world we have to inhabit; either way, it’s not our responsibility to fix what we’ve broken, either because someone else is going to fix it or because it’s all going to be blown to smithereens shortly by something that, please note, is never our fault.

All three of these factors have deep roots in American history, but it’s not too hard to identify the point in time when they moved in from the fringes to dominate the collective imagination – and that lands us once again in the wake of the Seventies, the years when a society that previously idolized John-Boy Walton and John Denver suddenly started idolizing Gordon Gekko and self-proclaimed "material girl" Madonna instead.

Putting that shift into context requires a glance back over the history of the second half of the twentieth century. The aftermath of the Second World War left the United States abrubtly filling the position of global hegemon previously held by Great Britain. In the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat, Americans believed they had a permanent lease on the moral high ground as they expanded around the globe and confronted the Soviet Union. Mixed motives and the pressures of expediency had their usual effect, though, and as the cognitive dissonance built up, it became increasingly hard for Americans to pretend that all the atrocities and abuses of the Cold War era belonged to the other side.

Those pressures reached critical mass in the early 1970s. The Pentagon’s epic incompetence in the Vietnam war and the blatant illegality and corruption of the Nixon administration sparked a backlash that, for once, reached right up into the corridors of power. In the wake of the resulting explosions, American troops came home from Southeast Asia, Nixon was forced out of office, and a quarter century of dubious and often illegal policies unexpectedly saw the light of day. All this took place during the runup to the US bicentennial, and the contrast between admittedly idealized notions of the 1770s and the awkward realities of the 1970s forced many Americans to notice the gap between what they had become and what they claimed to be.

These cultural shifts also happened, of course, as America’s own oilfields reached their all-time peak production, and the coming of America’s own encounter with peak oil threw a generation of easy assumptions of perpetual national prosperity into question. There were still plenty of people alive who vividly recalled the Great Depression and the austerity of the war years, and thus could get their minds around the concept that the postwar boom might be a temporary and self-canceling event, or even a corner into which the United States had backed itself. Many Americans, across a wide range of social and political positions, embraced the possibility that a prudent regard for the limits of nonrenewable resources might be a valid approach to economic and political questions, and that resource conservation and a shift toward less extravagant ways of living might be the best available options over the long term. An even broader spectrum of Americans came to believe, at least for a time, that something crucial to their nation’s meaning and value had gotten lost in the rush to global empire, but might still be recovered in time to matter.

It’s popular nowadays to forget that this happened, or to insist with varying degrees of cynicism that the moment of awareness couldn’t have lasted. Maybe that’s so, but I wonder how much of that comes from the same uneasy conscience that drives so much of today’s fashionable nihilism. Americans came together during the long ordeal that began with the stock market crash of 1929 and wound its way through the shadows of depression and war until 1945, and a similar effort over a similar time scale would have been more than adequate to the task of launching America into the transition to an ecotechnic future. Back then, the US still had abundant coal, oil, and natural gas reserves, not to mention a great many other resources; annual consumption of energy and resources was far below what it later became, and though a great many factories were shuttered in the sharp recessions of the 1970s, there were still millions of capable laborers who could have been put to work retooling the economy for a new and frugal age.

The steps necessary to make that transition were discussed during that time in any number of periodicals, some of them surprisingly mainstream. The United States would have had to step back from its self-appointed role as global policeman; it would have had to pass on a fair share of the cost of deterring the Soviet Union to its comparatively more prosperous allies in western Europe and the west Pacific, and accept a less expansive notion of its own national interests. Government subsidies for nuclear power and other nonrenewable energy sources would have been phased out, and the money – along with savings from a less gargantuan military – shifted into grants for conservation, renewable energy retrofits, and research programs aimed at repositioning American industry to lead the world in green energy technologies.

Changes in tax policy, zoning regulations and building codes would reshape the built environment to decrease energy use, while funds formerly wasted on highways would go instead to build high-speed rail between urban cores and rapid transit systems that would make commuting by car all but obsolete. All this would have cost plenty, and would have required Americans to tighten their belts and accept a diminished standard of living and some formal or informal rationing for a time. Down the road a quarter century or so, though, a prosperous nation getting by comfortably on a fraction of its previous energy needs, and thus able to ignore the Middle East as an irrelevance, would have the lion’s share of global trade in new energy technologies, high-speed rail, and a dozen other fields, while other nations burdened with high energy costs were left scrambling to catch up.

That was the vision. Again, it’s comforting to the collective conscience of today’s America to insist that it couldn’t have happened, but "comforting" is rarely a synonyn for "true." Myself, I think that it could have been done, or that there was at least a very real chance of doing it. The uncomfortable silence that falls whenever anyone brings up the subject of conservation in most circles in America today is one of the reasons I’ve come to that belief. When people set aside an obvious impossibility, they don’t remain brittle and angry about it for decades afterwards. It’s only when the road not taken was a real option, and the goal at the end of it noticeably better than the endpoint looming up ahead, that those who chose otherwise get shrill in defense of their decision.

That shrill tone is hard to miss these days, and it’s grown in volume and intensity over the course of the thirty-year vacation from reality America took in the aftermath of the Seventies. We’ll talk more about that in next week’s post.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Alternatives to Absurdity

It occurred to me yesterday, while riding the train back from another speaking gig, that this must be a supremely difficult time to be a satirist. Imagine any statement, no matter how preposterous, and it’s a safe bet that somebody in America will be saying it with a straight face before long.

The example that came first to mind as the landscape rolled past was Ann Coulter, the Lady Gaga of modern American pseudoconservatism. Coulter’s claim to public notice is the fact that she’ll say or do quite literally anything to get attention, and her latest stunt was up, or perhaps down, to her usual standards. Commenting on the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan, Coulter insisted that there’s nothing to worry about, because nuclear radiation is good for you. If someone is willing to start a bake sale to send her to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, I’m in a generous mood; put me down for two dozen cookies, and I’ll throw in the cost of a beach towel and a bikini, so she can bathe in the healthful, gently glowing waters streaming out of the No. 2 reactor.

Coulter’s utterance was far from the most absurd thing being said about the Fukushima disaster, to be sure. My readers may recall the people who insisted that the best way to respond to last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill was to blow up the leaking pipe with a nuclear warhead. Yes, the same suggestion is now being directed toward the Fukushima plant. I admit there’s a certain psychotic grandeur in the notion that a nuclear disaster can somehow be fixed by lofting three half-melted reactor cores and thousands of fuel rods into the atmosphere in a single mushroom cloud, so that hundreds of tons of radioactive waste can come drifting down across the Japanese landscape, killing thirty or forty million people and leaving half the island of Honshu uninhabitable for centuries to come. As a serious proposal, though – and some of the people making it appear to be serious – it’s hard to think of better evidence that a significant fraction of the American people has simply stopped thinking at all.

Still, the crowning bit of unintentional satire in recent news came from the White House. It’s a subtle joke, and one that seems to have gone over the heads of most of its listeners, but that’s one of the risks run by truly inspired humor. The comic routine in question, of course, was President Obama’s speech on energy policy last Wednesday.

More precisely, Obama’s speech outlined an energy nonpolicy. He seems to have had his speechwriters scrape up every cliché from every speech on energy policy made by every other resident of the White House since Richard Nixon, and the result was very nearly a nonspeech about his nonpolicy: a sort of verbal pantomime, in which Obama pretended to be doing something about energy in much the same way a mime pretends to be trapped inside a phone booth. He proposed, in effect, that the energy policy of the United States should include all the same things it’s included for the last thirty years, under the pretense that this is something new, and in the serene conviction that the same policy choices that backed us into our present corner will somehow succeed in getting us out of it.

What made Obama’s nonpolicy nonspeech such a bravura performance, though, was the easy grace with which it avoided mentioning any of the policy options that might actually do some good. The words “conservation” and “efficiency” appeared in the text only in reference to shiny new products that use up one set of resources to conserve another, and the only comments about solar energy referred to exactly the sort of complex, centralized approach that’s consistently proven uneconomical since the 1870s; mature, off-the-shelf technologies such as solar water heating and passive solar space heating, which could slice good-sized collops off our national energy use in a hurry, were never mentioned. None of the sensible steps that reduced US energy use by 15% between 1975 and 1985 had a place in Obama’s nonplan.

Mind you, Obama was quite right to suggest that America can cut its dependence on foreign oil by 30% by 2025. In fact, America will cut its dependence on foreign oil by at least 30%, and probably quite a bit more, by 2025; it’s just that the cut in question is not going to be made by any choice of ours, much less as a result of any of the fancy technological ventures Obama spent his speech promoting. It will be made because faltering oil production, rising competition for the oil that remains, and the decline of American imperial power compared to its emerging rivals, will slice a shrinking pie in new and, for Americans, distinctly unwelcome ways.

As that happens, the approaches ignored by Obama – and, to be fair, by the rest of today’s US political establishment, on both sides of the increasingly irrelevant divide between the major parties – are going to be among the very few options open to individuals in America and elsewhere who hope to ride the curve of energy decline to something like a soft landing. One example, which I’d like to explore in detail here, is the use of passive solar retrofits for domestic space heating.

Back in the halcyon days of the 1970s appropriate-tech movement, a great deal of effort went into designing passive solar architecture, and the results were impressive by any standard. In most areas, given a decent southern exposure, a house designed for passive solar heating, and adequately insulated and weatherized to make best use of it, requires little or no heating other than what the sun provides. The one drawback, and it’s a significant one, is that the house has to be designed and built with passive solar heating in mind. Those of my readers who expect to have the resources to build a house from the ground up, or have one built for them, should certainly look into passive solar designs; the rest of us will be living in existing construction, and the possibilities here are more limited.

The most important limit, of course, is that you can’t do passive solar at all unless a good part of the south or southeast face of your house receives direct sunlight during at least a significant fraction of each winter, spring, and autumn day. Some houses have that option; many others don’t, and if you don’t, you need to do something else. If you do, on the other hand, you have at least three options available, and they can be used alone or together.

The first is a thermosiphon air panel or TAP. Those of my readers who remember how a passive thermosiphon solar water heater works already know most of what they need to know here. A TAP is a wide, flat box with glass on the front, insulation on the sides and back, and a sheet of metal running parallel to the glass, with a couple of inches of air space between metal and glass. Air comes in at the bottom, flows over the metal, and goes out the top into the space that needs to be heated. Position the panel in the sun, and the metal very quickly gets hot; the air passing over the panel picks up the heat, and you very quickly have cold air being sucked into the pipe that leads to the bottom, and hot air being blown out the pipe that leads out of the top.

The TAP is one of the cheapest solar technologies you can make – it costs about as much as a good solar oven – and it produces heat fast: if you live someplace where winters are cold but sunny, and you can place the panel so that it catches rays as soon as the sun comes up, you can have hot air warming your house within a half hour or so of dawn. The downside is that the heat goes away as soon as the sun does, and at night, the thermosiphon effect can work in reverse – hot air gets sucked in the top, flows over the chilly metal, and emerges as an icy breeze at floor level. Thus a TAP needs valves to cut off the air flow when the sun goes away; it wouldn’t be too hard to work a light or temperature sensor into the system, so that the valves close automatically whenever there isn’t sunlight falling on the panel. If you’ve got a well-insulated and thoroughly weatherstripped house, the heat from a couple of well-placed panels can keep you comfortable well into the night, but the technology does have its limits for round-the-clock heating.

To balance the quick but unsteady heat of a TAP system, you need another system that soaks up heat whenever the sun is out, and distributes it to the house in a steadier manner throughout the day and night. The key to getting this effect is thermal mass. Some substances are good at soaking up heat; when it’s hot, they absorb it, and when it gets cold, they radiate it. Old-fashioned fireplaces used to include plenty of brick or stone precisely because these have plenty of heat storage capacity, and will still be radiating heat via infrared rays long after the fire has been banked down for the night. In the same way, most passive solar systems use plenty of thermal mass to soak up the sun’s heat in the daytime, and radiate it all night.

There are several different gimmicks for retrofitting a house to use thermal mass. One of the standard methods, back in the day, was the trombe wall. What’s a trombe wall? Basically, it’s a wall-sized TAP with thermal mass rather than a metal sheet inside the glass. One very effective, though rather ugly, way of building a trombe wall back in the day was to take black 55-gallon drums full of water and stack them in a sturdy frame so that their ends faced the sunlight; glass went over the sunward surface, a few inches from the ends of the drums, and the wall on the other side was pierced by vents at top and bottom, which could be opened and closed. Some kind of insulation to cover the glass on a cold night or cloudy days was a common addition that improved the efficiency of the system quite a bit. Water is among the very best thermal masses, but brick, stone, or concrete will also do a good job, and the less unsightly trombe walls tended to use these instead of barrels of water.

The next step up from the trombe wall, and one of the most widely used and thoroughly tested of the passive solar retrofit technologies, is the attached solar greenhouse. You build this onto the south or southeast face of your house, sealing it up tight so that air doesn’t leak in or out, and put a trombe wall between the greenhouse and the rest of the house; the floor of the greenhouse may also be made of heat-absorbing brick, stone, or concrete, to add to the effect. Sunlight streaming in through the glazing warms the air and the trombe wall inside, and heat then radiates from the thermal mass to the rest of the house, regulated by vents that can be opened or closed; the greenhouse should also be vented to the outside on hot days. In addition to a significant heat gain, of course, the greenhouse also allows you to keep fresh vegetables in the diet from early spring into late fall, and right through winter in climates that aren’t too arctic.

Quite a few experiments were made with active solar space heating – that is, systems that collect heat from the sun and then pump it somewhere else. It can be done, but because of the diffuse nature of solar heat, the efficiencies are low, and you very quickly end up using (and losing) more energy in the process than you gain by it. That’s been a persistent problem all along with attempts to run complex systems on the diffuse and intermittent energy flows that can be gotten from renewable sources. Too many people, faced with that reality, either give up on renewables altogether, or waste their time and resources trying to find some gimmick that will allow a diffuse and intermittent energy source to do the same things as a concentrated and instantly available one.

Given that renewables are the only energy supply we can count on for the long term, the first choice is not very helpful. Given that the laws of nature are under no compulsion to provide humanity with the kind of energy supplies that the fraction of humanity currently living in industrial societies seem to think they are entitled to get, the second one is not much better. The viable alternative, of course, is to recognize that renewable energy sources can’t simply be shoved into existing roles as replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas; they require different ways of thinking about energy, and imply an entirely different kind of energy technology.

That kind of energy technology – the ecotechnic kind, to use a term I’ve discussed here several times in the past – barely exists as yet. The thermosiphoning air panels, trombe walls, and attached solar greenhouses that emerged as the best products of a decade of lively experimentation are baby steps in the direction of the ecotechnic energy systems of the far future. Still, just as baby steps are precisely what’s most appropriate when a baby starts learning to walk, these simple, flexible, and inexpensive approaches are good ways to make a start on the task of learning how to live comfortably on the diffuse energy flows nature provides.

It’s also important to remember that all these things can be put to use by individuals, families, and local community groups with readily available resources, very much including salvage – old windows, for example, make excellent glazing for all three of the systems just discussed. That’s important, since the political class here in America seems to have decided that our nation’s apparently limitless reserves of absurdity can be used to replace its dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. While they’re busy making nonspeeches about nonplans or insisting that death is good for your health, those of us interested in alternatives to absurdity can get to work.


The starting point for this week’s techologies, here again, is the Master Conserver collection at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website; the papers you’ll need are on Passive Solar Heating -- Residential and Solar Greenhouses. Ed Mazria’s classic The Passive Solar Energy Book has plenty of information on passive solar systems generally, and The Integral Urban House by Sim van der Ryn, et al., has – among many other useful things – a good chapter on solar systems.

For solar greenhouses, the best books I know are Rick Fisher and Bill Yanda’s classic The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse and the predictably massive and detailed Rodale Press book on the subject, James C. McCullagh (ed)., The Solar Greenhouse Book.