Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Preparation for Philosophy

The tenor of the response to last week’s post on the intersection of magic and peak oil was, at least to this archdruid, as startling as it was pleasing. Oh, there was a certain amount of fluttering in online dovecotes, as well as a certain amount of blank incomprehension, but a great many readers took the time and made the effort to follow a discussion of what is, after all, one of our culture’s taboo subjects.

The strength of that taboo nonetheless managed to show itself in the most common objection to my discussion of magic as the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. A number of readers insisted that I was redefining the word “magic” to suit my own purposes, and that there was something underhanded in such a procedure. We could get into an interesting discussion here about the meaning of words, which is always contested, negotiated, and polyvalent, but there’s a more important point: I didn’t invent the magic, or the definition thereof, that I discussed in last week’s post.

This point gets missed so often that it’s probably necessary to go over it in detail. Right now, across the modern industrial world, a great many people—to judge by book sales, perhaps a million, perhaps more—are engaged in the study and practice of ceremonial magic. There’s nothing new in this; a comparable fraction of each generation have busied themselves at this very unfashionable pursuit for a long time now. Specific systems of magical practice can be traced back down the years—for example, the Golden Dawn tradition, the most popular magical system in the English-speaking world, came together in English occult circles in the 1880s, and drew heavily on older systems with their roots in the late Renaissance; other traditions have lineages of similar length; the Druid order I head, for all that, was founded in 1912 and drew on a heritage nearly two centuries old at that time.

The word “magic” is the proper term for the activities these people engage in. Of course the word has other meanings, but insisting that I must have made up a meaning that the word’s had since the days when it was spelled μαγεια and spoken by ancient Greeks—well, it’s a bit as though somebody was to insist that since more than half of all Americans believe that the word “evolution” means that human beings are descended from chimps, that’s what it means, and when an evolutionary biologist tries to correct the misconception, it’s fair to accuse him of redefining the word to fit some personal agenda.

Now of course in modern America we don’t compare discourse on magic to discourse on evolutionary biology; one is the subject of a centuries-old taboo, and the other—well, it may end up being the target of a similar taboo before the current round of culture wars are over, but that’s a topic for another post. The myth of progress, which serves as the central religious narrative of our time, insists that magic is something that only primitive people do, and most people in the contemporary industrial world will do the most spectacular mental backflips to avoid noticing the fact that a small but significant fraction of their friends and neighbors are, in fact, practicing magic—not in any metaphorical sense, either, but in the straightforward sense of putting on robes, lighting incense, tracing strange diagrams in the air with wands, and using these traditional tools to cause changes in consciousness in accordance with will.

There are at least two ways to apply the toolkit of the operative mage, though, and since the difference between them bears directly on the intersection between magic and peak oil, I’d like to bring in an example here. (Those of my readers who enjoy rhythm and blues can get the appropriate soundtrack here, courtesy of the Clovers, the classic R&B group that originally recorded it in 1959.)

Love magic? Of course. I hope none of my readers are under the illusion that falling in love is a rational process. Rather, as last week’s post mentioned, it depends in very large part on the nonrational and nonverbal reactions that managed pair bonding for our prehuman ancestors. The rational mind, that evolutionarily recent and distinctly rickety structure of linguistic feedback loops propped up on top of a highly adaptive animal mind and nervous system, has little direct influence over the archaic reactions that cause one person to fall into or out of love with another, and even less with the tangled patterns of emotion and memory that so often gum up the works in one way or another.

Every human society in recorded history has worked out indirect ways to reshape and redirect those reactions and to resolve at least some of their pathologies, and those indirect ways are the stock in trade of love magic. Some of them are extremely simple—for example, a man with weak self-esteem is going to repel potential partners, because he triggers the same sort of reaction that makes female baboons turn up their noses at potential partners toward the bottom of the troop’s pecking order. Change that self-assessment by some bit of appropriate psychodrama, and you change the reaction and the person’s chances of attracting a partner. Other patterns of self-defeating behavior are more complex, but most of them can be affected by tinkering with the nonrational levels of the mind.

This is where things get complex, because broadly speaking there are two ways you can do that. You can manipulate the nonverbal conversation between people, and if you do it skillfully enough and your client isn’t a total wart, you often get results. Sometimes you get lucky, and one round of magic is enough to shake the client out of whatever self-defeating behavior was getting in the way; most of the time, though, the effects are temporary, and then your client with low self-esteem is right back where he started and his erstwhile partner is walking away, wondering what on Earth she was thinking when she agreed to date him. Then your client comes back to you for another bottle of Love Potion No. 9. It can be a lucrative gig, so long as you can handle facing yourself in the mirror each morning.

Then there’s the other option. It works on the principle that the only sure way to attract love is to make yourself lovable. You can do that with magic, but it’s not the same kind of magic; instead of tweaking the nonverbal signals you give off and leaving your self-defeating emotional patterns unresolved, you use magical tools to bring the emotional patterns into consciousness and then resolve them. That’s not usually a pleasant experience; it requires a willingness to deal with the fact that you may not be lovable but have the capacity become so; and this, in turn, requires a willingness to think of the personality, not as the be-all and end-all of the self, but as a ramshackle structure of petrified opinions, habitual emotions, and behavioral tics amassed over the course of a lifetime, which is what it generally is. All of this may explain why this approach to love magic is much less popular than the other.

The less popular option, though, is one expression of a way of magical practice that, oddly enough, also counts as one of the Western world’s enduring philosophical systems—and thereby hangs a tale.

When I went back to college in 1991 to finish my degree, one of the things on my notably eccentric agenda was getting a good general grasp of the history of Western philosophy before the industrial revolution. The philosophy department at the University of Washington in those days offered a set of three survey courses, Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Philosophy, the first two of which seemed to fill the bill. It turned out, though, that there was an odd feature to this broad survey. The class in Ancient Philosophy ended in the fourth century BCE with Aristotle; the class in Medieval Philosophy started up again with Augustine of Hippo in the late fourth and very early fifth century CE, and then jumped immediately to Anselm of Bec in the eleventh century. Inquiries about the gaps brought a shrug and an insistence that nothing interesting had happened in philosophy during those centuries.

It’s harder to find a better example of the way that intellectual history, like every other kind, is written by the winners. The years between Aristotle and Anselm weren’t a philosophical void; it’s simply that the kind of philosophy practiced in those times isn’t ancestral to the kind that’s practiced now, and moved in a direction that today’s philosophers by and large find acutely uncomfortable—and yes, magic is part of the reason.

Classical philosophy in general passed through three broad eras, in which three different questions were of central importance. For the Presocratics, who got started with Thales of Miletus in 585 BCE, the question that mattered was "What is real?" Their proposed answers varied all over the map, and so their successors, notably Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the philosophers of the New Academy and the Old Stoa, asked instead the more fruitful question "How can we know what is real?" The attempts to answer that question ended up creating classical logic, one of the great achievements of the human mind.

By Aristotle’s time, though, a third question had already begun to emerge. The tools of logic proved to be effective ways to figure out at least part of what is real and what matters, but the ancients, like a great many people before and since, quickly discovered that it’s one thing to understand logically what needs to be done and quite another thing to do it, or to motivate others to do it. The question that came to dominate the latter two-thirds of the history of classical philosophy, then, was "How can we live in accordance with what we know to be real?" Plato was ahead of his time here; some of his later work focused on this third question rather than the second, and from this part of his work, later philosophical movements headed off in their own ways.

One of those movements has earned more than one mention in this blog already. This is Stoicism, the philosophical school launched by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. The Stoics—the name comes from the Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch in Athens, where Zeno used to meet with his students—argued that what kept people from living in accordance with reason was, on the one hand, misguided opinions about what was and wasn’t important, and on the other, simple lack of courage. Along the lines of some modern systems of thought, they insisted that if people studied logic and gained an accurate sense of their very modest place in the universe, they would be able to respond to life’s events in a sane and constructive manner, rather than being batted around at random by the forces of passion and prejudice.

It’s an appealing notion, and the best of the Stoics were impressive figures by any standard. The problem, though, was that Stoicism proved impossible to teach to anyone who didn’t already find its ideas and practices emotionally appealing. Anyone else trained in Stoicism simply ended up learning how to pursue irrational ends with a Stoic’s focused will and utter disregard for popular opinion. The Roman emperor Claudius, for example, arranged to give his stepson the best available Stoic training at the hands of Seneca the Younger. The young man’s name was Nero; you may have heard of him, but probably not as a model of Stoic virtue. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius tried the same thing with his son Commodus, and the results were nearly as bad.

Such obvious difficulties in the Stoic approach fed the growth of a different philosophical school, which eventually became the philosophical core of late classical culture: Neoplatonism, which took Plato’s tentative probings toward an answer to the third question and ran with them. Central to Neoplatonism was the idea that the human mind had irrational as well as rational dimensions, and that there had to be better options than ignoring or browbeating the irrational side of the self. In one of his dialogues, Plato had compared the whole self to a chariot in which reason was the driver and two irrational parts, the biological appetites and the social reactions, were two very unruly horses.

The challenge that had to be solved, to the Neoplatonists, was how to train these horses so that they would pull the chariot the way the charioteer wanted to go. Several centuries of work went into finding the best ways to meet that challenge, and the toolkit that became central to Neoplatonism from the third century CE on—well, that’s where magic comes in.

In the writings of late Neoplatonist philosophers such as Iamblichus and Proclus, the word used was theurgy—"divine work," distinguished from thaumaturgy, "working wonders," which was the common or garden variety magical practice that went on in classical society in much the same way that it goes on in ours. The practice of theurgy was exactly the unpopular kind of magic I’ve described above; in the technical language of the time, it was practiced to purify the vehicles of consciousness; in the terms I’ve been using, it was intended to see to it that the baboonery of biological drives and social reactions didn’t interfere with the reason and the will.

The theurgists, in fact, summed up their magic as a preparation for philosophy—not philosophy in the modern sense, of course, but in the classical sense of an active life in the world lived according to the dictates of wisdom. It was far from the only preparation for philosophy in Neoplatonist circles in those days, mind you; the same students who performed magical rituals also immersed themselves in the study of logic, Euclidean geometry, and the most up-to-date natural science of the time. Strange as though the procedure seems by modern standards, it seems to have worked; Neoplatonism never produced a Nero or a Commodus, while it did produce a substantial and impressive crop of teachers, statesmen, philosophers, and the like.

Still, the great final synthesis of Neoplatonism came together, rather as our own final syntheses seem to be doing, in a collapsing society. As the classical world imploded, theurgy suffered the same fate as most other aspects of classical culture. A reworked and sanitized version of Neoplatonist theurgy found a home in Christianity, with the sacraments filling the role of theurgic rites, and stayed in use in some parts of the Western World until the Reformation and Counterreformation put paid to it. In its original form, the tradition went underground, and maintained a hole-and-corner existence in various corners of the Mediterranean world until the Renaissance, when most of the core texts found their way back into circulation and helped launch a revival that hasn’t stopped yet. Read standard texts of the major magical traditions nowadays—the papers collected in Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn are as good an example as any—and you’ll find classic theurgic Neoplatonism in there at the core of it, beneath 1500 years or so of miscellaneous accretions.

All this may seem irrelevant to the discussion we’ve been having to the future of an industrial society wrestling with the consequences of overshooting its own resource base. Still, it’s worth noting that a central aspect of our predicament is precisely that even the people who have managed to grasp just how severe that predicament is haven’t been able to turn that realization into a motive for meaningful action. Al Gore’s new mansion and frequent-flyer miles are a well-known example of this, but there are plenty of others. By and large, even those who recognize that today’s SUV lifestyle is an arrangement without a future, and that abandoning it in favor of more modest and more sustainable lifestyles is very nearly the only option that offers a way out, seem unable to make the necessary changes in their own lives.

For all that, these are the people who have at least noticed that there’s a problem; to borrow Plato’s metaphor, the charioteer may not be able to rein in the horses but at least he realizes that the route they’re galloping is going to take them and him right over a cliff. Most Americans haven’t gotten that far yet. Many of them have realized that something’s gone very wrong, but if you ask them what exactly it is that’s gone wrong, you can pretty much count on a great deal of baboonery. Social primates like you and I have a strong and wholly nonrational propensity to force-fit our problems into a social mode—no matter what’s happening, we want to put a face on it, which in practice amounts to blaming it on the troop over there, or the baboons at the top of our troop’s hierarchy, or maybe the ones at the bottom. We also like to define any problem so that its apparent solution doesn’t make us feel that the fulfillment of such basic biological appetites as food, sex, status, and security are put in question. Add to those distorting factors a widespread ignorance of logic and history, and a great deal of straightforward dishonesty on all sides of the political continuum, and you’ve got a pretty fair mess.

Thus we’ve arrived as a society, and at a very late stage in the game, at the same point that classical philosophy reached after the execution of Socrates, when it became uncomfortably clear that having a small minority of people passionately interested in asking and answering the right questions was no guarantee against catastrophic levels of collective stupidity. The Neoplatonist answer was a personal answer, the development of a toolkit to make clear thinking and decisive action possible for anyone with the self-discipline, patience, and persistence to put the tools to work, and it’s as valid an approach now as it was in the days of Iamblichus—though it’s only fair to say that there are other ways of getting to the same place, some similar, some very different.

The question that comes to many minds these days, though, is whether something similar can be done on the large scale—whether, to be precise, it’s possible to banish enough baboonery from our collective conversation about the future that we as a society can confront the real sources of our problems and do what has to be done. We’ll talk about that next week.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Clarke's Fallacy

When I commented last week that I was going to have to discuss the intersection of peak oil and magic, I had a pretty fair idea what the immediate response would be, and that duly followed. Before the metaphorical ink on the post was dry, people were already popping up on the peak oil blogosphere to denounce in advance what they were sure I was going to say. For those of us who belong to the small community of people who study and practice magic, this is familiar ground; there’s a wry amusement in watching such antics, but no least trace of surprise.

Being an operative mage in the contemporary industrial world, really, resembles nothing so much as being an evolutionary biologist at a convention of Southern Baptists—or, for that matter, an educated theist at a meeting of the more intolerant sort of atheists. The great majority of the people around you know essentially nothing about the subject that concerns you, though they have an ample fund of misinformation culled from books and websites written and read exclusively by people who share their prejudices. They consider themselves qualified to judge the subject because they’ve lifted some canned polemics from these same books and websites, and if you show them that the canned polemics are riddled with ignorance, irrelevancies, and straw man arguments, they’ll just give you an irritated look and go right back to the canned polemics.

Those of my readers with a background in sociology will have no trouble recognizing this as a textbook case in the sociology of deviance—specifically, the way that human groups use seeming statements of fact the way baboons use bared teeth and threat postures, to stake out territory and drive off outsiders. As far as we know, baboons don’t try to use their territorial displays to make sense of their world, and this is to their credit. Human beings, alas, are not always so clever, and the resulting confusions play a massive though rarely recognized role in mangling communication in any complex society.

Try to talk about magic and this sort of mangled communication shows up early and often, as a recent and topical example shows clearly enough. About the time I started work on last week’s Archdruid Report post, The Oil Drum posted without comment this year’s most serenely idiotic statement about peak oil. The source was investment analyst Porter Stansberry; he was being interviewed about why peak oil isn’t a problem, and his reasoning ran as follows: "[G]eology doesn’t create oil; capital creates oil. The more capital you put toward oil, the more of it there will be." (You can read the whole interview here.)

Consider that statement for a good long moment. It’s not unique to Stansberry; the late Julian Simon used to make essentially the same claim, and you’ll hear it from quite a few economists these days. What Stansberry is saying is that if you have enough money to invest, geological limits to petroleum extraction don’t exist. Money, though, is a symbolic system consisting of abstract representations of wealth, and Stansberry is thus claiming that the manipulation of symbols wields occult powers that can override the laws of nature and conjure up petroleum from the depths of the Earth.

Most people would call this an example of magical thinking, and it corresponds very closely to the sort of thing people do in Harry Potter movies and other media portrayals of magic. It may be worth noting, though, that this is not what operative mages claim to be able to do. In point of fact, I’ve carried out a very modest survey over the last few years by presenting claims like Stansberry’s to the operative mages I know, and noting their responses. The typical reaction, edited for printability, is on the order of "You’ve got to be kidding. People actually believe that?"

What our society calls magical thinking, in other words, is not the kind of thinking that mages actually do, and the frequent denunciations of magical thinking flung at operative mages would be much more sensibly directed at economists. (I suppose there isn’t much hope of getting it renamed "economic thinking," though that’s a more accurate term.) This state of affairs unfolds from the very tangled history surrounding magic in the Western world, and is best understood via a thought experiment.

Imagine, then, that the cultural struggles of the late Renaissance that launched the scientific revolution and consigned magic to the crawlspaces of our society went the other way, and magic, rather than science, became the core cultural project of the modern world. You live in that alternate world, and one fine afternoon you step out of a bookstore on a street near the local university and head for the next stop on your list of errands, as carriages rattle over the cobblestones alongside you. It’s graduation day, and students in star-bedecked robes and tall pointed caps pass you on the sidewalk in droves. They’ve just completed degrees in astrology, alchemy, and other serious subjects; some will go on to graduate school, others to jobs—you overhear an excited young astrologer telling his friends that he’s just gotten a position at a brokerage, where he’ll be casting horoscopes to predict stock values.

You’re none too interested in the chatter, though, because you’ve just bought a bestselling novel that you’re dying to read—Harry Potter and the Scientist’s Stone. You already know half the plot, of course, since everybody’s been talking about it since it hit the bookstands. It’s about this orphan kid who’s stuck in this horrible home situation, but it turns out that his parents were actually scientists, and pretty soon a lab assistant comes and takes him away to the mysterious Warthogs Institute where everybody goes around wearing lab coats and muttering algebraic equations. There he gets to study science, which amounts to chanting chemical formulas and building big clanking machines to cause the changes in consciousness that ordinary people get done by magic.

In this alternate world, mind you, there are people who actually try to practice science—this despite the efforts of the Committee for Paranormal Investigation of Claims of the Scientific, whose members go around heaping disdain on anybody who claims to have experienced a repeatable cause and effect relationship. A lot of would-be scientists simply dress up in lab coats, fill their apartments with test tubes and similarly spooky decor, and leave popular books with titles like Secrets of the Physicists Revealed! on the coffee table to impress dates. Those who get beyond this sort of thing, as often as not, still have a great deal of Harry Potter mixed up with their science, and keep on trying to figure out how to make science do what magic does, with no significant success.

It’s only among the more experienced and serious practitioners in this alternate world that you find people who have realized that the difference between science and magic isn’t a difference of means but of ends—that science isn’t about causing changes in consciousness, as magic is, but about learning and then applying the properties of matter and energy on their own terms. In a society that embraces magic as its central cultural project, mind you, most people don’t see much value in this latter endeavor. The irony is that some of the most serious problems facing the alternate world can’t be solved by changes in consciousness. They could conceivably be solved by using the properties of matter and energy, but if you try telling people that, you’ll get an irritated look, and then a bunch of canned polemics.

Step back through the looking glass at this point, and you’ll find that the same situation applies once you reverse all the signs. Science, not magic, became the core cultural project of our civilization, and the things that science and technology can do—learning and applying the properties of matter and energy—are the things we consider important. Popular images of magic thus have it imitating science and technology in one way or another. The sort of fake magic you get ad nauseam in the Harry Potter franchise is as good an example as any; Harry and his classmates fly around on brooms, zap people with wands, and manipulate matter and energy directly, which is exactly what magic does not do.

The apotheosis of this sort of thinking is Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Clarke, who was among the best of SF authors; it’s hardly blameworthy that he shared misunderstandings of magic that were all but universal in his culture. The point remains that since magic does not do what technology does, and vice versa, the Third Law should properly be renamed Clarke’s Fallacy; no matter how advanced a technology may be, it does the kind of thing technologies do—that is to say, it manipulates matter and energy directly, which again is what magic does not do. I’d like to propose, in fact, an alternative rule, which I’ve modestly titled Greer’s Law: "Anyone who is unable to distinguish between magic and any technology, however advanced, doesn’t know much about magic."

To understand what it is that magic does do, it’s crucial to look at the specific purposes for which magic is used in practice. Since every human culture known to history has practiced magic, this isn’t exactly hard, and the purposes of magic have varied remarkably little over the centuries. Why do people turn to magic? To tilt the odds their way in hunting, gambling, war, and any other activity that combines high uncertainty with high stakes; to establish, improve, and shape the whole range of human relationships; to heal illnesses of body and mind; to integrate the personality and bring it into harmony with the structures of the cosmos, however those are understood; and, not least, to deal with the fact that other people are using magic for these same purposes, and not always with your best interests in mind.

What do these things all have in common? They all deal with mental phenomena, individual or collective. Grasp that, and you start to grasp what magic is all about.

Philosophers and psychologists down the centuries have tried to bring our attention to two important but generally neglected facts: we know more than we realize, and we affect more than we realize. Look at the human organism from an evolutionary standpoint and this isn’t hard to understand. Our rational, conscious, symbol-using minds are recent and rather rickety structures built over the top of a superbly adapted mammalian nervous system. The tangled relationship between the two shows up, for example, in the way that athletes have to learn to get their thinking minds out of the way in order to reach peak performance. It’s a dirty trick well known among tennis players to ask your opponent just how he holds his thumb when hitting backhand, knowing that the unwanted awareness will mess up his coordination and quite possibly cost him the game.

The same factors apply in most other aspects of human life. When two people fall in love, for example, their rational minds have little to do with the matter; the same nonrational, nonverbal patterns of mutual communication that handled pair bonding for our prehuman ancestors do the same thing for us, and as often as not our rational minds simply get hauled along for the ride, squawking and complaining all the way. Social status is determined the same way; read up on social hierarchies among baboons and then visit, say, an activist group trying to find consensus, and if you pay attention to body language and other nonverbal cues, you’ll quickly spot identical patterns at work. In my experience, at least, the more egalitarian a group claims to be, the more completely it depends on baboon politics to maintain group cohesion and direction—though if you mention that in such circles, you’ll get an irritated look followed by canned polemics.

I could list any number of other examples, but I trust my readers will have gotten the point: a great deal of what goes on in our lives depends not on our rational, linguistic, symbol-using minds, but on an intricate and richly communicative nonrational substructure inherited from our animal ancestors, most of which we never notice at all and much of which is highly resistant to any kind of conscious control. The main current of our industrial culture, which has made the rational mind central to its core cultural project and fixates on a particular mode of conscious control—more on that in a later post—has few resources to offer for dealing with that substructure, other than ignoring it, white-knuckling it, or drugging it into temporary submission. There are better tools to hand, though: the tools of magic.

Consider a healing spell, the sort of thing that shamans, sorcerers, and mages have practiced down through the centuries. Do these work? Quite often, yes, and the mechanism in many cases seems to be what today’s science calls the placebo effect. Today’s science treats the placebo effect as an obstacle to be gotten out of the way, and it’s right to do so. If you’re trying to find out the properties of matter and energy on their own terms, the placebo effect and its kin are major sources of confusion. You need to keep mental phenomena from bollixing up your perception of physical phenomena, or the results aren’t good. What’s an obstacle to the scientist, though, is the mage’s bread and butter.

The operative mage doesn’t want to get rid of the placebo effect. Quite the contrary, he or she wants to amplify it and use it, to direct the body’s healing resources toward a cure. That’s what the psychologically charged symbols, the ritual psychodrama, the emotionally evocative herbs and incenses, and all the other tools of operative magic are there to accomplish. Apply the same logic to the other purposes of magic mentioned above, and the same interpretation applies. We know more than we realize, and affect more than we realize; tapping into that unnoticed knowledge can lead to better choices, just as tapping into that unnoticed ability to affect situations can lead to better outcomes. These two taken together are what’s generally known as "luck."

But what about the spirits, planes, powers, and all the other metaphysical hardware that fills books on magical theory? Are those real? That’s a very good question with a very complex and uncertain answer. Anyone who takes up serious magical training will start to experience such things within a year or two of beginning daily practices; the effect is reliable enough that those of us who teach magic all know to expect the panicky phone call or email that comes right after each student has his or her first experience of the kind. The experiences we’re discussing are mental in nature, not physical; they have the appearance of real beings, places, and so on, but then the same thing is true of the people and places encountered in dreams.

There’s a lively and continuing debate among operative mages about the ontological status of these things—are they hallucinations? Dissociated complexes? Archetypes of the collective unconscious? Actual entities existing on a continuum perceived solely by the mind?—but so far, at least, it’s proven wretchedly hard to come up with a verifiable answer. The traditional lore offers useful guidance in how to deal with these experiences while maintaining a state of relative mental balance, and for the time being that’s about all that can be said for certain.

The debates over the nature of magical experience stray into some weird territory on occasion. Still, I’ve been studying and practicing this stuff for more than three decades, and in my experience, the only way an operative mage is going to get a broom to fly is to buy round trip airfare and take the broom as checked baggage. It really is that simple.

The same logic applies at least as forcefully to the intersection between magic and peak oil. Porter Stansberry can brandish the arcane symbols of the stock market and intone the ritual gibberish of economic textbooks all he wants; his incantations aren’t going to cause petroleum to materialize in the depleted reservoirs of America and the world. Chanting "Drill, baby, drill" may well put the chanters into a trance state—certainly the people who’ve made this their mantra seem to have achieved a blissful unconcern with the realities of petroleum geology—but that’s all it’s going to do. "The planes," to cite a magical maxim, "are discrete and not continuous," which means in ordinary language that petroleum reserves are one thing and daydreams quite another, and trying to insist that the former has to follow the same rules as the latter is a sucker’s game.

That being said, there’s another side to the story, because peak oil is not only, or even primarily, a problem of what magical philosophy generally calls the physical plane. The finite nature of petroleum and other fossil fuel reserves, and the very limited prospects for replacing fossil fuels with anything else, are a function of hard physical limits, of course, but the three decades of bad decisions that have backed America and the industrial world into a corner of their own making, and foreclosed any number of technically feasible responses to the impending end of the age of cheap energy, are not physical in nature. They belong to the plane of consciousness—to the realm of choices and worldviews, of the unrecognized motives and unacknowledged desires that run rampant through our civilization’s profoundly murky inner relationship with its technology and the energy sources that power the latter.

Over the last decade or so, quite a few people have tried to solve the technical issues of peak oil without grappling with, or even recognizing, the existence of this other dimension of our predicament, and the result has been a great many technically appealing solutions that sit gathering dust on the shelves. (Mention this to those who are busy coming up with new additions to the same dusty shelf and—well, you know what kind of look and response you’ll get.) The green wizardry of the Seventies, to its credit, went deeper, and attempted—with some success—to address these other issues: issues that could be called cultural, or psychological, or (let’s whisper the word) spiritual. To make sense of their explorations and build on them, though, we’re going to have to go a good deal further into the topic of magic, talk about the black hole in the history of Western philosophy, and—why not?—break out a bottle of Love Potion No. 9. We’ll do that next week.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Glass Bead Game

When I proposed in last week’s Archdruid Report post that readers write science fiction stories about the crisis of industrial society, I wasn’t thinking of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke as a potential author. Still, a speech of his that made the New York Times a few days back suggests that he’s got a sufficiently wild imagination for the job.

In that speech, while trying to explain why shoveling trillions of dollars of money into the coffers of the banks that caused the Great Recession hasn’t done anything besides enriching bankers, Bernanke insisted that what’s wrong with the economy is that Americans are irrationally depressed about it. That, he claimed, is what’s keeping consumers from engaging in the binge spending that will get the economy moving again. You have to hand it to the man; it’s an extraordinary leap of fantasy.

Out there in the real world, after all, a sixth of the US population is living below the poverty line. Most Americans who are still employed are taking steep cuts in salary and benefits where they aren’t waiting day by day to see who gets a pink slip next. Then, of course, in a little over two years, Obama’s health care legislation will place yet another massive burden on working people by requiring them to buy health insurance whether they can afford it or not, at whatever price the industry chooses to charge for it, with only airy assurances of subsidies from a government already drowning in debt to balance against health insurance rates that are currently higher, for many families, than the monthly cost of the home they live in.

In other words, Americans are frantically paying off their debts, cutting their expenditures, downscaling their lifestyles, and trying to get some cash put by, because they have plenty of good reasons already to worry about their financial survival, and will have an even better one come 2014. It’s tempting to add another reason for worry to the list—a political establishment, on both sides of the aisle, that’s blatantly out of touch with reality—but there’s more driving Bernanke’s essay in science fiction than a simple case of common or garden variety cluelessness. The core issue, as I see it, is that the economy is not behaving the way economic theory says it ought to behave.

Among many other things, we’ve begun to see the first stirrings of stagflation—the theoretically impossible combination of a contracting economy and rising prices for necessities. That this round of stagflation follows the peak of world conventional crude oil production, just as the last round followed the peak of US crude oil production, is hardly an accident, but the connection is one that mainstream economic thought has an inborn inability to address. The dogma that demand creates supply, or more generally that financial forces can trump the laws of physics and geology, is so deeply ingrained in contemporary economics that the obvious connection between rising resource costs and economic malfunction is quite simply invisible to most of today’s economists.

Bernanke’s attempt to blame it all on an irrational epidemic of national gloominess will likely prove to be the first of many excuses we’ll see over the years to come, as the mismatch between economic theory and the facts on the ground becomes harder and harder to ignore. Connoisseurs of imaginative fiction will want to keep an ear tuned to the utterances forthcoming from centers of power across the industrial world; we’ll doubtless hear some whoppers. Still, I have to question whether any of this flurry of fantasy has much to offer as we rattle and bump down the rough roads on the far side of Hubbert’s peak, and with that question in mind, I’d like to turn to a very different work of fiction that brings up some points the Ben Bernankes of the world seem most disposed to miss.

This is all the more interesting in that the work in question, though it’s set in the future and makes some very subtle speculations about that future, doesn’t seem to have been recognized as a science fiction novel at all. This was probably a good thing at the time, because it won its author a Nobel Prize for literature, and you don’t get those for science fiction. Still, it seems to me that it’s past time that the work I have in mind be assigned to its proper genre. The novel is The Glass Bead Game, and its author was Hermann Hesse.

When I first started college, Hesse’s name was one to conjure with among the young and hip. He’d developed a cult following on American campuses about the same time J.R.R. Tolkien did, and for similar reasons; though the two authors differed in just about every other way you care to think of, both wove hard questions about the presuppositions of 20th century industrial civilization into their fiction. Both were accordingly dismissed as unreadable by most Americans until the social changes of the late 1960s called those presuppositions into question. When the reaction set in during the 1980s, Tolkien’s life’s work was neatly gelded by being turned into raw material for an industry of derivative fantasy that borrowed all his imagery and none of his ideas, and tacitly ignored the hard questions he posed about the lust for power welded into the heart of modern technology. Hesse’s novels were harder to stripmine for cheap clichés, and so in America, at least, they were simply forgotten.

Even in the days when every other college student you met had a copy of Siddhartha or Steppenwolf tucked in a garish backpack, though, The Glass Bead Game—for some reason, most American editions retitled it Magister Ludi—was a more rarefied taste. It’s a very odd story: a hagiography, more or less, compiled by a bumbling and officious scholar in the early 25th century, about a controversial figure of the previous century whose deep ambiguities of character and action go right over the narrator’s head. There are plenty of things that make it a more challenging read than some of Hesse’s shorter and more popular novels, but I’ve come to think that one of those relates directly to the theme of this blog: the 24th century setting Hesse shows the reader in brief glimpses around the life of Magister Ludi Josephus II, aka Joseph Knecht, master of the Glass Bead Game, is not a 24th century that most people in the 1970s and early 1980s were willing to imagine.

It’s one of the deft touches of the novel that Hesse paints that future with a very sparing brush, but the transition between our time and Joseph Knecht’s gets explained in enough detail to make a definite kind of sense. The early 20th century, in Hesse’s future history, ushered in what later scholars would call the Age of Wars, a century-long periond of prolonged and brutal violence that saw most of Europe repeatedly ravaged and the centers of global power shift decisively to other parts of the world. When lasting peace finally came, what was left of Europe tried to figure out what it was that drove the frenzy. The answer they settled on was the profound dishonesty and political prostitution of the intellectual life of the age—a time when, to quote a professor of the Age of Wars cited by Joseph Knecht in a letter, "Not the faculty but His Excellency the General can properly determine the sum of two and two."

In the postwar era, accordingly, the scholarly professions reorganized themselves on monastic lines as ascetic Orders, and each of the surviving European nations set aside a portion of land as a "pedagogic province," supported by the state but free from political interference, where talented youth could be educated, schoolteachers could be provided for the rest of the country, and scholars could pursue their research in relative security. Nearly the entire story of The Glass Bead Game takes place in one such region, Castalia, the pedagogic province of Switzerland. There and in equivalent provinces elsewhere, in the wake of the Age of Wars, the most gifted minds of each nation pursued research projects full time, and created a future...

If you were expecting that sentence to end "...of dramatic technological progress" or the like, think again. This is where Hesse’s future history bounces right off the rails of our expectations, into territory that may seem surprisingly familiar to regular readers of this blog. It’s worth remembering that science fiction of the more standard kind, with plenty of whiz-bang technology, was widely read in the central Europe Hesse knew. Nobody likes to talk much these days about pre-1945 central European science fiction, because a very large part of it enthusiastically pushed the aggressive authoritarian populism that got its lasting name from Mussolini’s Fascist Party and helped launch the metastatic horror of Nazi Germany, but there was a lot of it, packed with the usual science fiction notions of endlessly accelerating social change driven by limitless technological advances. It’s pretty clear that Hesse deliberately rejected those notions in his own work.

The future the busy scholars of Castalia create, rather, is a period of ordinary European history differing from earlier periods mostly in its lack of war. Technology, far from progressing, stabilized after the Age of Wars, and most modern machines seem less common than in our time. A trip by railway makes a brief appearance early on, but only that once. Automobiles exist, but only two of them appear in the story; one is owned by a wealthy and politically influential family, while the other is assigned to take a high official of the Castalian hierarchy to important meetings. Most of the time, when a character goes someplace and the mode of travel is mentioned at all, the trip is made on foot.

Other high technology isn’t much more common. Broadcast media, type not specified, play a minor role in the story at one or two points, and there’s some kind of projection system that allows equations to appear on a large screen as they’re being written, but that’s about it. Doubtless astronomers have big telescopes and the like—Castalia has astronomers, yes, but it’s the only science that Hesse mentions by name. Most of the scholars of the pedagogic province work in fields such as mathematics, musicology, philology and philosophy, or take part in the jewel in Castalia’s crown, the Glass Bead Game.

The Game is arguably Hesse’s greatest creation, a stunningly successful piece of social science fiction so far ahead of the conventions of the genre that its implications haven’t even registered yet with other writers in the field. Unlike most modern thinkers, Hesse realized that historical periods value different intellectual projects; the contemporary conceit that treats technological progress as the most, or even the only, valid use of the human intellect is simply one more culturally and historically contingent judgment call, no more objectively true than the medieval belief that scholastic theology was the queen of the sciences. In 24th century Europe, attitudes have changed again, and an abstract contemplative discipline, half game and half art form, has become the defining cultural project of the time.

For reasons I’ll develop in a forthcoming post, I want to take a moment here to talk a bit about the Game itself as Hesse envisioned it. It emerged, according to his invented history, out of the fields of mathematics and musicology, as scholars found common patterns underlying the two disciplines—the structure of a geometric proof, let’s say, sharing the same abstract form as a Bach fugue or a Gregorian chant. Early on, the game was played with an abacus-like device with wires representing the conventional musical staff, and glass beads of different sizes, colors, shapes, and so on—thus the name of the Game—providing a more complex alphabet in place of simple musical notes. Later on, a formal mathematical script was developed; more scholarly disciplines took up the Game, finding their own abstract patterns and relating them to the musico-mathematic core; meditation exercises became part of the toolkit; public Games, attended by crowds, broadcast to large audiences, and surrounded by festivals of music and the arts, became major annual spectacles.

It’s another of Hesse’s defter touches that by the time of Joseph Knecht, the golden age of the Glass Bead Game is already past. Public Games that once extended for a month straight now run for two weeks at most, attended by smaller audiences and fewer public officials; the first stirrings of discontent about the funding allotted to Castalia and its equivalents are beginning to be heard; political events in the Far East have raised the specter of an end to the long period of European peace. How this plays out in the course of the story is something I’ll leave to those of my readers who decide to try Hesse’s novel for themselves, but it’s not giving anything away to say that Hesse’s sensitivity to the pace of historic change was a good deal keener than that of most other authors of science fiction.

There are two reasons I’ve chosen to discuss The Glass Bead Game here—well, three, counting the simple fact that it’s an old favorite of mine that deserves more attention than it’s gotten in recent decades. Aside from that, first of all, Hesse’s future Europe may not quite be an ecotechnic society, but it’s the kind of society that could exist and flourish in a future on the far side of peak oil. A nation or a continent in which automobiles are a rare and expensive luxury, railroads provide the bulk of what mechanized transport is needed, high technology is relatively scarce, and the values of society focus on pursuits that don’t require burning up immense quantities of cheap energy, could probably get by tolerably well, and provide a decent standard of living to its population, in the absence of fossil fuels. At a time when most people can’t conceive of a world that lacks our current glut of cheap abundant energy without turning immediately to the fantasies of squalor and savagery our culture habitually projects onto the inkblot patterns of the past, Hesse’s novel suggests an alternative view—though he’s quite clear, of course, that the route there leads through some very harsh territory.

The second reason follows from this, and heads in directions that will be as uncomfortable for many of my readers as it is unavoidable. It’s pretty much standard practice for every society to assume that its particular tastes and values are universal truths, and to think that any society that doesn’t share those tastes and values is by definition ignorant, or backward, or—well, you can fill in the putdown of your choice; there are plenty to go around. Our culture’s obsession with replacing human capacities by machines is a case in point. It’s very nearly unquestioned in modern industrial societies that getting a machine to do something that human beings would otherwise do is a good thing; even nations with crippling rates of unemployment persist in using a definition of productivity that amounts in practice to seeing how many people can be put out of work by replacing their labor with machines.

Our machine fetish, as I’ve discussed here more than once in the past, could only be indulged in so long as the extravagant use of fossil fuels made mechanical labor cheaper than human labor. That’s already started to reverse—there are good reasons, after all, why most of the world’s manufacturing is now done in Third World countries using cheap human labor rather than in the industrial world with expensive automated machines—but the cult of the machine retains much of its grip on our collective imagination. Even among those who recognize that the age of cheap energy is ending, the most common first reaction is to try to find some way to keep some favorite type of machine running—automobiles, the internet, the space program, you name it.

Among the most crucial tasks facing the pioneers of the deindustrial age, in turn, are those involved in slipping free of that now-obsolete mindset. Machines, as I think most of us have noticed by now, make very poor replacements for human beings, and the reverse is almost as true. Shifting from a machine society to a human society in the wake of peak oil, then, is not simply a matter of replacing one set of components with another that happen to be human. It’s necessary to replace attitudes, values, and expectations that are suited to machines—and nearly the entire modern worldview can be summed up in these terms—with the very different attitudes, values, and expectations that produce good results when applied to human beings.

That leads in turn to issues that have been implicit in the project of this blog since its beginning more than five years ago, but that I’ve been doing my level best to avoid bringing up. At the core of these issues lies a topic so heavily loaded with ignorance and deliberate misunderstanding on all sides that it’s seemed far wiser to leave it well alone. Still, if we’re going to finish the project of exploring a toolkit for green wizards—a set of skills and a knowledge base suited to the crisis of industrial society and the hard work of beginning to build a new way of life while the old one is tottering around us—it can’t be avoided any longer. For that reason, despite serious misgivings, I’m going to begin a series of posts next week that will talk about the relationship between peak oil and magic.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Invasion of the Space Bats

Science fiction, that oddest offspring of industrial civilization’s religion of progress, has not done a great deal so far to explore the end of the age of cheap energy that gave that religion its moment in history’s spotlight. Still, the trajectory traced out in last week’s post helped midwife some useful habits of thought concerning the future, and one of these is a sense of the believable a good deal more stringent than the one that’s been cultivated so far in the peak oil blogosphere.

That last statement might raise some eyebrows, I know. Whatever its pretensions in recent decades, science fiction spent most of its formative years, and produced a good many of its major classics, at a time when it was basically a collection of wish-fulfillment fantasies for teenage boys. (And that, Mr. de Camp, is what the woman in the brass brassiere is doing on the cover of your book.) Still, even the most lurid of fantasies depend for effect on what has been called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” and if the absurdities pile up too deeply, as J.R.R. Tolkien commented in a characteristically acerbic passage, disbelief has not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Thus there was always pressure on SF authors to check their facts and make the details consistent. As SF fandom became a significant force on the evolution of the genre, the sort of geeky obsessiveness you find in teenage fans of just about anything became a badge of honor, and pushed the same process further. Before long, it was no longer enough to tell a rousing tale about square-jawed space heroes and nubile females on some distant planet; no matter how hackneyed the plot and two-dimensional the characters might be, the planet had to make some kind of sense in terms of the scientific knowledge of the time, and so did the fanged and tentacled horrors that threatened the heroine, the hero’s laser pistol, and the rest of it. Even when authors made things up out of whole cloth, as of course they did constantly, they had to figure out some way to graft the invention onto existing knowledge so that the seam didn’t show too clearly.

Even before science fiction hit the big time in the wake of Sputnik I, the demand for believability had become one of the essential elements of the genre. The dismissal of legendary science fiction editor Ray Palmer from the senior position at Amazing Stories in 1948 was arguably the turning point in the process. Palmer had made the Ziff-Davis pulp magazine chain a remarkable amount of money by filling the magazine with a free mix of trashy science fiction, popular occultism, and dubious alternative science, and he also played a central role in inventing the UFO phenomenon, but the higher-ups at Ziff-Davis sensed the way the market was moving. Palmer ended up launching a new magazine, Fate, that for all practical purposes created the modern New Age movement, while SF took a different path.

Unexpectedly, science fiction’s unscientific twin, fantasy fiction—which had a similar prehistory in the pulp magazines and broke through into respectability roughly a decade after SF did—followed a similar trajectory. To some extent this was driven by the overlapping readership of the two genres, but of course there was another factor as well, the force of nature already mentioned that went by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien. There had been plenty of fantasy fiction before The Lord of the Rings, but none that succeeded so stunningly in evoking the presence of another world with its own history, languages, cultures and conflicts, because nobody before Tolkien had tackled the job with the obsessive consistency and eye for detail that he put into his creation of Middle-earth. In his wake, fantasy authors who hoped to get away with the casual disregard for plausibility that ran riot through Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories, among many others, started getting rejection slips in place of contracts. Expectations had changed, and the genre changed with it.

By and large—with important exceptions, to be sure—those expectations have remained glued in place in both genres, and when a book fails to live up to them, you can pretty much count on hearing a raucous response from the fans. Sometimes this sort of response has been taken to remarkable lengths. For decades, for example, Analog Science Fiction—under its original title, Astounding, the great rival of Palmer’s Amazing—had a substantial crowd of retired engineers, especially but not only in the aerospace field, among its loyal readership. Get a story published in Analog, and you could reliably expect to have hundreds if not thousands of pairs of beady and remarkably well-informed eyes scanning every scientific detail. If you got some bit of hard science wrong, in turn, you could expect to hear about it at length, in fine technical detail, complete with calculations hot off the slide rule, in the letters to the editor column two issues down the road.

It’s occurred to me more than once that the peak oil field badly needs certain things science fiction has stashed in its imaginary warehouses, and one of them is a shipping container or two full of those eagle-eyed retired engineers who used to read Analog. Now of course we have some—to quote only one example, regular readers of The Oil Drum are familar with the very capable technical analysis that routinely appears there—but there aren’t enough to deal with the need for what might be called technical criticism: the careful, impartial, and exacting analysis of claims about not-yet-invented technologies and not-yet-created social movements that played so large a role in making science fiction the intellectually and even philosophically challenging genre that for a while, at least, it became.

And this, dear reader, is where we start talking about alien space bats.

No, those aren’t the symptoms of an unusually florid psychosis, nor do they feature in any significant number of science fiction stories—well, not since Ray Palmer’s time, at least. The term comes from the field of alternative history, the fascinating study of what could have happened if some small detail of history had gone the other way. Back in the early days of the internet, according to the account I’ve seen, one participant in a lively discussion on a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to alternative history insisted that Hitler’s planned invasion of Great Britain could only have succeeded if the Wehrmacht had been helped out by alien space bats. Whether he was right or not—a question I don’t propose to discuss here—the term caught on as a convenient label for the kind of arbitrary assumptions and implausible gimmicks that too often get used to prop up dubious alternative history scenarios.

It’s a useful term, and one that could helpfully be brought into the peak oil scene, because arbitrary assumptions and implausible gimmicks play an embarrassingly large role in discussions of how our industrial civilization is going to deal with the twilight of the age of fossil fuels. The "drill, baby, drill" mantra beloved of so many American pseudoconservatives these days is based, for example, on the wholly arbitrary assumption that the United States, which has been more thoroughly explored for petroleum deposits than any other piece of real estate on Earth, and has seen trillions of dollars of government largesse poured into encouraging domestic oil production in recent decades, still has vast amounts of crude oil tucked away somewhere that would flood the market with cheap petroleum if only those awful environmentalists weren’t getting in the way. That’s nonsense—politically useful nonsense, to be sure, but nonsense that ranks up there with the best alien space bats of alternative history.

Mind you, the fluttering of alien space bat wings can be heard just as clearly from other points around the peak oil compass. A forthcoming paper in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy by a team headed by Carlos de Castro usefully points out, for example, that a great many recent claims about how much electricity can be produced by wind power fail to deal with that old nemesis of cornucopian schemes, the laws of thermodynamics. Since energy taken from moving air in one place can’t be taken out of it again in another, the paper attempted to come up with an approximate figure for the total energy that human beings can extract from the atmosphere. Their estimate relies on a certain number of ballpark guesses, and begs for more research; still, it will come as no surprise to those of my readers who have been paying attention that the figure they came up with is a small fraction of the total amount of energy currently used by industrial civilization, and only around one per cent of the high-end estimates circulated by the wind industry and its proponents.

There are plenty of other examples. I discussed some of them a while ago in a post here about the blind faith in vaporware that pervades large sectors of the peak oil blogosphere, and some of the others in another post about the lullabies disguised as solutions that fill an embarrassingly large fraction of peak oil literature these days. The same illogic, in turn, drives the self-defeating insistence, chronicled in a a newly published book of mine, that history as we know it is about to end for their convenience. Whether it’s the Rapture, the Singularity, the flurry of freshly invented prophecies about 2012, or what have you, it’s all the same thing, the great-grandmother of all alien space bats: the claim that something or other will bring history to a screeching halt in time to spare us the necessity of facing the consequences of our own actions.

There are a great many forces driving these unproductive ways of thinking, but I’ve come to think that one of the more important is a factor other people in the peak oil blogosphere have discussed already. This is a curious atrophy that afflicts the modern imagination, making it remarkably difficult for most people nowadays to imagine any future that isn’t simply a continuation of the present. Science fiction authors are not exempt from that; it’s impossible to read such classics of the genre as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, for example, without noticing on nearly every page that the galactic empire that provides the series with its setting has the social customs of the 1950s, when the stories were written. For that matter, the much more recent SF bestseller Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which is not only set on another world but takes place at a point in its history more than 3400 years past the equivalent of our own time, characters wear T-shirts, eat energy bars, and use cell phones (they call them jeejahs, but they’re cell phones) to call each other or access the equivalent of the internet.

Still, one of the virtues of science fiction is that it doesn’t always fall into such ruts, and more often than other branches of literature, recognizes that the social and technological habits of any given era are not the permanent fixtures they sometimes seem, but points along a historical trajectory shaped, among other things, by ultural fashions and sheer dumb luck. Even if we get through the crises of our age the way the people of Stephenson’s world got through the period they call the Terrible Events, and create a technological society on the other side of it, our descendants won’t be wearing T-shirts or calling people on cell phones in the year 5400 AD, any more than we now wear togas or take notes on wax tablets the way the ancient Romans did; they’ll wear other clothing and communicate with other tools—and with any luck they’ll snack on something less repellent than energy bars. Fairly often, science fiction catches wind of such shifts; sometimes it succeeds in guessing them in advance; tolerably often, for that matter, what starts out as imagery from science fiction becomes the inspiration for design in the real world—I trust nobody thinks, for example, that it’s accidental that most early cell phones looked remarkably like the communicators from the original version of Star Trek.

That awareness is something the peak oil scene desperately needs just now. Leave out the alien space bats and the fetishistic obsession with mass death, and there have been few attempts so far to make sense of the world our descendants will inhabit in the wake of peak oil. Fiction, one of the principal tools our culture uses for such projects, has been particularly neglected here. James Kunstler is the major exception here, of course, with two very readable novels set in a post-peak future; there’s also Caryl Johnston’s intriguing "essay-novel" After The Crash; there are a few others, including my ongoing blog/novel Star’s Reach. Still, the arrival of the limits to growth bids fair to have at least as massive an impact on the future of the decades ahead of us as space travel and its associated technological advances had on the decades that followed science fiction’s golden age, and it seems to me that it’s past time to get thinking and writing about the dangers and adventures, the hopes and fears, the dreams, problems and possibilities of a world on the far side of peak oil.

Longtime readers of this blog will have noticed that one of its central themes is the need to stop waiting for somebody else to do what needs to be done, and get working on it ourselves. With that in mind, I’d like to propose a contest—or a challenge—to this blog’s readers.

I propose that as many of you as are willing write a short story set in the future in the wake of peak oil, and put it on the internet. (If you don’t have a site, Blogspot and Wordpress both offer free blogging space that you can use for the purpose.) When it’s up, post a link to it on the comments page of this post. Meanwhile, I’m going to sound out some publishers, and see if I can find one willing to bring out the world’s first anthology of peak oil-related short stories; if that happens, I’ll pick the best dozen or so stories, add an introduction, and get the collection into print. If any money comes out of it—there probably won’t be much—it will be split between the contributors or, if they agree, donated to a peak oil nonprofit.

Here are the submission requirements for the contest:

Stories should be between 2500 and 7500 words in length;
They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;
They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;
They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;
They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not fantasy—that is, the setting should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;
They should deal directly with the impact of peak oil, and the limits to growth in general, on the future; and...
There must be a complete and utter shortage of alien space bats.

What I mean by this latter specifically is that stories should show humanity dealing with peak oil and the limits to growth—dealing with them, not evading them. If your story insists that petroleum and other fossil fuels can be replaced by some other equally cheap and abundant energy resource, or that we can still have an industrial system churning out lots of consumer products in the absence of cheap abundant energy, it’s not going to be posted here or considered for the anthology. If your future leeps some elements of modern technology going, fair enough, but your story should provide enough detail that the reader can figure out where the resources and energy to keep the technology going come from, and how a society far more impoverished than ours can afford to divert enough of its limited wealth for the task.

For that matter, if your story has friendly aliens land in flying saucers to solve all humanity’s problems, it’s going to go into the recycle bin, and the same goes for transformations of consciousness, divine interventions, divine interventions in cybernetic drag such as the Singularity, or the like. To be considered for the contest, your story needs to start from the assumption that human beings like you and me are going to be living with much less energy, and far fewer of the products of energy, than you and I have available to us today; they’re going to have to cope with the legacies of the industrial age, and with the social, political, and ecological consequences thereof; and they’re going to live challenging, interesting, and maybe even appealing lives in that context.

This last, to my mind, is perhaps the most crucial point. There’s nothing easier, in fiction or out of it, than wallowing in the pornography of despair—insisting that life isn’t worth living in the absence of cheap energy and its comforts and conveniences, or in the presence of widespread poverty, illness and warfare. The fact remains that the vast majority of humanity’s existence on this planet has been spent in conditions that can be described in exactly these terms, and somehow our ancestors found life worth living in spite of it all. There’s nothing to be gained by sugarcoating the deindustrial future, to be sure; we’ve got a few very harsh centuries ahead of us; but it’s worth remembering that most of the great epics our species has written so far came out of exactly such periods, and neither they nor the historical events that inspired them were chronicles of unrelieved wretchedness.

Now of course it’s a bit early yet to begin writing the Mahabharatas, Nibelungenlieds and Heike Chronicles of the deindustrial dark ages; our Arjunas, Siegfrieds, and Yoshitsunes haven’t gotten around to being born yet, nor will for quite some time if the usual pace of events holds true. Still, plenty of people wrote about the first human footprints on the Moon long before those prints actually got there, and it’s not too soon to start talking about the first human footprints on the post-peak oil Earth in the same terms. Your stories may be set a year from now, or a thousand years from now; they may be tales of everyday life or stories of high adventure, or anything in between; but there’s a very real chance they can help kickstart the process of coming to terms with the future that’s ahead of us as the industrial age totters to its end.