Thursday, February 17, 2011

Descent, pt. 3

This is the third entry of a multi-part post. The previous parts are Descent, pt. 1 and Descent, pt. 2.

The honest thing to do

It's my view of long-term intimate relationships that they start as a chemical-induced trance of obsessed attraction that lasts just long enough, in the successful case, for both people to develop enough of a feeling of sunk loss so as to perceive it as being worthwhile staying with and investing in the other person for the long-haul, no matter how unglamorous or unexciting that long-haul proves to be. My sunk loss view of relationships is too unflattering, too unromantic, and far too cynical for many people to embrace, though I think it underscores a positive point: that even an unglamorous and unexciting life spent with another is likely better than a glamorous and exciting life spent alone.

How much did Laura like The Long Descent because of me and her perception of my expectations? I don't know. But I've seen this book work its magic a few times, with each reader coming away with his or her own positive takeaway messages. Years 2006-2008 of Greer's blog, from which The Long Descent is mostly derived, has been a large influence in my own attempt to understand how contemporary, day-to-day events fit within the greater trends and the greater chaos of history—the ebbs and flows that are bigger than any single lifetime. Thus it is that I wish to review the book, both because it's possible that someone reading my review may feel a spark to explore for themselves the possibilities of comparative history and alternative narrative frameworks and also because reviewing my own influences seems like the intellectually honest thing to do.

The Long Descent

The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age begins with the premise that global oil production is currently at (or very near) its all-time maximum, as predicted by the Hubbert curve, and that we face a long, inexorable decline for the next century or so until the precious hydrocarbon is nothing more than an expensive curiosity. Greer doesn't expend many words arguing what new technologies will replace oil. As he sees it, oil is the pinnacle of cheap, abundant, concentrated energy, and no set of new technologies will replace it fully; every potential alternative will be an incomplete, poorer substitute. The decline in worldwide oil production will inevitably lead to a decrease in overall worldwide wealth severe enough to cause an uneven series of breakdowns in existing social, economic, and political systems, just as resource-depletion issues in past civilizations led to similar such breakdowns. We do not have an energy problem, Greer says; we have an energy predicament. Problems have solutions. Rather, the future we should expect will be a centuries-long, punctuated descent into a post-industrial dark age akin to the dark ages that followed all other great, past civilizations. Large, centralized power bases will retract, sometimes violently so, and on the whole people will muddle through, getting by with fewer available resources and simpler technologies.

From this dreary prophesy of deindustrialization arises a surprisingly positive and encouraging book. The Long Descent is not so much about peak oil as it's about how we think about peak oil—or, more often, how we we avoid thinking about peak oil.

A story about stories

At the core of The Long Descent is Greer's idea of “the stories we tell ourselves”.

Stories are probably the oldest and most important of all human tools. Human beings think with stories, fitting what William James called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of all the universe around us into narrative patterns that make the world make sense. We use stories to tell us who we are, what the world is like, and what we can and can't do with our lives. Every culture has its stories, and if you pay careful attention to the stories a culture tells, you can grasp things about the culture that nothing else will teach you.

The more stories we know and tell ourselves, the better equipped we are for understanding what's going on around us. “If you have a wealth of different stories to think with, odds are that whatever the world throws at you, you'll be able to find a narrative pattern that makes sense of it.” However, according to Greer, most industrialized people don't have this wealth. Instead, we're often locked in to one of two stories, with each one seeking to explain everything in the world. The first is the myth of progress, the story that humanity is on a trajectory of vast and glorious improvement, starting all the way back with our baser past as primitive hunters and gatherers and continuing through today and tomorrow with relentless scientific innovation and economic growth. The myth of progress tells us that there is no problem too difficult for us to solve.

The alternative story is the negation of progress. The myth of the apocalypse is the story that humanity is on a trajectory towards inescapable tragedy owing to our increasingly immoral, unbalanced, and unnatural civilization. As a result, civilization will certainly crash, and it will do so suddenly and violently. Most people will not survive the transition, though those who do will find the world returned to a better, truer state free from modern evils.

Greer's argues that neither of these stories deal well with the awkward evidences of peak oil. The myth of progress tells us that oil is just one energy source on the ladder climbing up to ever better energy sources, despite some critical arguments concerning energy return on invested energy (EROIE) of every non-FF energy source today, including nuclear. Never mind that, science will pull through. Future humans will have it even better than us.

The myth of the apocalypse, on the other hand, embraces our decline but accelerates the process to a speed never actually observed. This is where Greer's historical perspective works to advantage, by detailing example after example how though a civilization's fall may comprise a single page in a history textbook and thus seem swift and linear to us nowadays, its reality was something far, far longer, messier, and more complicated, usually with no one person alive both at the beginning and end. Greer asserts we have insufficient evidence to suppose that industrialization will end any differently than past civilizations.

According to Greer, better stories are ones that lie in between the two extremes of progress and apocalypse and align themselves with the patterns and evidences of history. Greer himself spins such a story for the remainder of The Long Descent, a story I've come to think of as the myth of meandering change. In it, Greer outlines a little more specifically some broad, likely trends in the next few decades and proposes some practical advice for what we ought to be doing. And if you'll bear with me and my description of Greer's ideas, I'll finally get to writing about what I think about all this.

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