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Considering the odds of survival for homo sapiens technicus - Apocalyspse Not [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Brent Eubanks

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Apocalyspse Not [Dec. 7th, 2006|05:03 pm]

Toby Hemmenway, the author of Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture (the best intro to permaculture that I know), just posted an essay examining the psychology of peak oil "doomers".

His conclusion is that we (humans generally, and Americans particularly) are culturally conditioned to a myth of life, struggle, death, and rebirth. He makes a good arguement; to his explanation, I would add the fact that people tend to see things in terms of either-or extremes. In the case of peak oil and environmental threat, the obvious poles are "tomorrow will look just like yesterday" and "we're doomed, run for the hills". Those poles are psychological attractors.

This is a subject very near to my own life. Since I first began to take environmental crises seriously, I have struggled to construct plausible visions for the future. I try to envision the best possible future, so that I can try to create it. I also try to envision the most likely bad future, so that I can be prepared for it. The latter is certainly more difficult. As he says

Again, my point here is not that Peak Oil doomerism is wrong. The apocalypts may, for the first time in thousands of predictions, be right. We face enormous crises and we have the tools to end civilization. But remember, as you feel yourself drawn to the apocalyptic story, that it is the natural place to go in uncertain and dangerous times.

My current view is that economic upheaval and dislocation is a nearly inevitable consequence of peak oil and climate change, but total breakdown of technological civilization and social order is possible but very unlikely. However, total collapse is not actually the worst possible fate IMO: if things get very bad, but do so relatively slowly, and our energy/water/food infrastructure remains highly centralized, it would be very easy for the slow erosion of prosperity to translate into the complete obliteration of the middle class and the abrogation of personal liberty for the sake of security in an increasingly unstable world full of dissatisfied people. One could argue, and some have, that we're already headed down just this path. The end result of this scenario would, essentially, be a form of techno-industrial feudalism as fewer people control relatively larger parts of a smaller pie. The end-point of this scenario probably is eventual technological collapse, but we could continue in that mode for a very long time, with little hope of a rennaissance.

This slowly-boiled-frog scenario for the future is actually what I fear most, and is the reason why I do what I do. The only way to avoid it, I think, is to decentralize our infrastructure and to develop ways to create prosperity that don't rely on the continued and increasingly rapid dissipation of natural capital. Wealth and growth are our only way out, but we must redefine these ideas in ways that are compatible with long-term ecological survival. And given how badly we have depleted our stores of natural capital -- the basis of our prosperity so far -- we really had better figure it out soon. We're not likely to get another chance.

[User Picture]From: mdrohl
2006-12-08 01:34 am (UTC)
I agree that people tend to be either overly pesimistic or optimistic about the environment.
Those at both ends of the "everything will be fine"/"we're screwed anyway" dichotomy tend to come to the same conclusion: "It doesn't really matter what I do, gimme a cheeseburger."

As Jared Diamond argues, many wars which are billed as ethnic/religious/national/political are really about control of dwindling resources (e.g. Iraq/oil, Rawanda/). This being the case it seems likely that as more resources dwindle, we will have more wars over them. People tend to imagine a colapse happening in a very short time, but as you say, a drawn out collapse can be worse. Inreasing war and decreasing freedom go hand in hand.

Of course, maybe the moon base will save us. Or it is the end time.

In either case, where's my cheeseburger?
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[User Picture]From: mdrohl
2006-12-08 01:42 am (UTC)
Oh, and I notice you are plugging a book published by Chelsea Green. My brother-in-law works there as an assistant editor and maintains their blog,

If you've not looked at their catalog,( you should, they have a lot of books that are so far up your alley you may as well just subcribe.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-12-08 02:00 am (UTC)

Apocolypse Real

First, thanks for plugging Hemenway's book. Second, thanks to mdrohl for emphasizing the plug. Third, nice post all around. This is something I find quite interesting, though I haven't talked with people much about it, so I appreciate that you've got me thinking. Fourth, I'd like to take exception to Hemenway's saying "The apocalypts may, for the first time in thousands of predictions, be right." I think that a lot of apocalypts have been right over history, though, of course, usually they are not. There were some who saw early on that the Nazis were going to go absolute ape-shit for mass murder. There were some who saw early on that the Rawandan genocide was going to be just that. There were some who saw early on that the Communist revolution in Russia was going to doom a hell of a lot of people to absolute, well, apocalypse; same for what happened in China, and in Cambodia. And for that matter, same for the path to apocalypse the U.S. has triggered in Iraq and the path that got trod in Vietnam. And this is only the list of easy to think of ones from the past 80 years. If by apocalypse Hemenway restricts himself to total apocalypse of the earth, well okay, that hasn't happened (ignoring the previous great extinctions that predate humanity). But if you allow for regional apocalypsia, then, unfortunately, there have been quite a few and quite a few people have accurately predicted them as they set in. So in that context, the peak oilers and global warmers are in "good" company. Speaking of whom, might I mention another Chelsea Green book--I mention it not only because I work there, in fact, not at all because I work there, but because I actually think it's an interesting and worthwhile book. Not out yet, but soon, and I think it'll be right up your alley. Greg Pahl's The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook ( -Jonathan Grasshopper
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[User Picture]From: a_steep_hill
2006-12-08 02:33 am (UTC)

Re: Apocolypse Real

Good point about the reality of apocalypse. It's true that doomsayers have a shitty record, statistically speaking. But historically, the most notable (or at least the most often recorded) doomsayers are the ones predicting the end of life on earth, end of the universe, the returning of Christ, etc. But if we look at folks predicting much more localized (albeit severe) disasters, the hit rate goes way up. I'm sure that someone in the Roman Empire tried to sound warning about the direction the Empire was headed, though they probably got tossed to the lions for their trouble (and their warning was not recorded, as far as I know).

Apocolypse is an interesting psychological phenomenon that, ultimately, gets back to some very basic questions about fundemental values and the nature of the self. It's probably never reasonable to forecast "the end of the world" for everyone. It's often reasonable to forecast the end of the world in the context of particular religious/ethnic/geographic groups. I mean, if I die, my family dies, and all my friends die, that's the end of the world for me, psychologically speaking, right?

While I'm at it, I'm going to lobby an arguement in support of the "we're all screwed" view. This could be considered a counterarguement to Toby's thesis, if one wished. It starts with the recognition that you're right: although global disaster has never occurred in human history, local and regional disasters are not that uncommon. However, the world is now interconnected like never before in history, and the threats are global in a sense that has never been true before in history. Also, the vast majority of people in developed countries are one or more generations away from farming, weaving, and other "grounded" occupations, to a degree that is also unique in history. So in that light, I think it's not unreasonable to believe that the near future may, in fact, hold for us an apocalypse similar in degree to the collapse of the Roman Empire but on a global scale. Thus the subtitle of my blog.
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[User Picture]From: dawn_pillsbury
2006-12-08 03:49 am (UTC)

Re: Apocolypse Real

Armageddon is a story that plays well to human ears. It seems to be a great belief, throughout history, that we're living in the end times. The daily news makes me want to stock up on ammo and canned goods.

But Hemenway makes his most sound point in his other recent essay: We need to become more dependent on each other and local resources, not huddle in our country estates, warming ourselves with the illusion of independence.

It's too bad so many Americans are apocalyptians. I think believing in reincarnation nurtures a more healthy respect for the power of one's actions.
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[User Picture]From: galactic_dev
2006-12-08 06:01 am (UTC)

Re: Apocolypse Real

I assume you're speaking of paganistic reincarnation beliefs, because the Hindu reincarnation beliefs justify the caste system.
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[User Picture]From: ouraboros
2006-12-08 06:59 am (UTC)
The end result of this scenario would, essentially, be a form of techno-industrial feudalism as fewer people control relatively larger parts of a smaller pie.

I was listening to "Marketplace" on NPR a couple of days ago -- they mentioned something like 2% of the world's population controls 50% of its wealth, while 50% of the world's population controls...well, you get the idea. And how 37 million people have >$500,000US assets. It's not the technology that matters, or even the communication, IMNSHO. The poor these days with their cell phones that can do rudimentary banking (in some countries with very bad retail financial services) by zapping prepaid phone credits to each other as an alternate currency, and also IM to find out what the prices for their goods would be in various markets (Is it worth travelling to a particular place to try to sell my wares this week?) -- these are capabilities that even the richest king of yore would not have had access to.

What seems to drive humans' happiness is a sense of how well they are off *comparatively* speaking to *others* around them, that they judge to be in their community. A simple proof: What would you rather have, $50K salary when your peers are earning $25K, or $100K when your peers are earning $200K? (assuming that you preserve buying power, ie, these salaries don't affect inflation). I'm using money here as a quantifiable, fungible metric, but I'm sure what I'm saying applies to forms of social ranking that is a quasi-closed system/zero sum game, like political power, social class, etc.

Sure, you can also find happiness by being given an opportunity to improve your own lot: then you have the chance to compare your current circumstances with your previous one, and see that you are better off over time. I think this is the highest social good that capitalism at its best provides: it distracts that social competitiveness ("it is not enough that I win; everyone else must lose") to self-improvement competitiveness ("if I dedicate myself to becoming rich, I will succeed"). I have a half-formed theory that "the American dream", whatever the details, worked because the drive for material improvement supplanted the drive that would have fueled ethnic/religious/class tensions that were excuses for conflict in "the old country". I wonder if materialism ("let's team up to try to cheat/trade with that other fellow, so we'll be better off") supplanted old fashioned appropriation ("let's find an excuse to kill that guy and take his stuff"). Since improving trade does in fact make the pie bigger more efficiently for everyone, this explains the incredible GDP growth the US has experienced over its history -- people kept being inspired to find new ways to exploit capitalism (credit markets, stock markets, derivatives, insurance) to become wealthy, and it has kept working for quite some time to occupy most people's vocational energy. It's when these opportunities fail that the fascists and social demogogues start gaining power...
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[User Picture]From: a_steep_hill
2006-12-08 07:19 pm (UTC)
What would you rather have, $50K salary when your peers are earning $25K, or $100K when your peers are earning $200K? (assuming that you preserve buying power, ie, these salaries don't affect inflation). I'm using money here as a quantifiable, fungible metric, but I'm sure what I'm saying applies to forms of social ranking that is a quasi-closed system/zero sum game, like political power, social class, etc.

Well, duh. I'd rather have the higher salary. The problem is that the second half of your proposition is not generally true: higher salaries tend to drive up the price of certain critical commodities, most notably land/housing.
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