Thursday, April 22, 2010

Yes, But is it Good for the Druids?

So I've been reading The Archdruid Report lately. Druidry? Well, best I can tell it's a practice of spirituality in nature, and without any evident orthodoxy, doctrine, belief, or pantheon (whatever the original druids might have worshipped or practiced is long since lost after all), it seems benign enough. If I were going to invent a religion from new cloth, it might go something like that, but on the other hand, the world already has more than enough faiths for its own good. I am sometimes attracted to these sorts of big-picture environment-and-society blogs as a matter of general understanding of how people fill up the planet and what we do here, and because I like to imagine where it goes from this point. Also, it's good to remind yourself that life could be lived much differently than whatever it is you're doing now. For the future, assuming a whimper rather than a bang (or, unfortunately, a rocketship), peak oil is estimated within a five-year time frame (via), and one imagines that coal and uranium won't net more than a generation or two using it at this pace. What will we do?

So I like reading these sorts of blogs...with reservations. Although the field appears to draw good writers, the commenters often scare me. Dmitry Orlov has the benefit of being funny, and brings a first-hand perspective of the Soviet collapse of a couple decades ago. I think he understands better than most people what happens to society when political reach rapidly disintigrates (hint: it's violent), but enough calls of "yeah Dmitry, but don't forget the coming race war," in one comments thread was enough to get me to stop reading altogether. Jim Kunstler has a delightfully named blog, and writes well even if he sometimes borders on nutty, but he attracts assholes like a Turkish bathhouse, and the sanctimony that his rural Lake George upperclass writer's life provides for him makes me want to sock him in the eye. By contrast, the Archdruid is gentler than these other guys, and he thinks in that comprehensively generalist way that I sometimes aspire to, even if I find him to be casual with numbers. He had some discussion of Systems Theory, which I'd never heard of even though I spent two years writing about it, that really won me over. (And yeah, it's always these guys: men look forward to a collapse more than women do, for obvious reasons. Even the kindly druid got my blood boiling a little with suggestions that we'll have to revert to more traditional domestic arrangements. Maybe that'll happen, and maybe it doesn't have to be sexist, but it probably will be: some commenter opined that feminism will simply one price we have to pay. I'm sure it would be a big sacrifice for him.)

In this week's post, the Archdruid discusses modern economics vis a vis energy sustainability. I love his notion of economists as court soothsayers, suddenly finding themselves out of their depth as circumstances (appear ready to) change. Yes, the pursuit has been a good-faith attempt to describe human behavior that is deep-down based on observations, but it's also frequently been self-serving justification, and I don't believe the precision that some economists claim, nor the omnipotence that capital is attributed. Economics is a useful description of human activity, in other words, but it's still not a comprehensive one.

But it's important to realize that Greer is describing a few schools of economic thought, schools that have adapted to a political landscape that includes 200 years of amazing energy abundance. That's not how the study developed, however, and early modern economists were more closely concerned with the balance of resources, population, capital, and land. Malthus and Mill didn't have the numerical finesse (or tools) of the eggheads and sharks on Wall Street, but that doesn't mean they weren't sharp. We can say that this is the original basis of validity that he's talking about, just like a superstition started in observation, but that's still not quite right. Economics may not have the precision of a real science, but it's still based on observation and models of behavior that have evolved to fit it. Malthus' theory, as I've babbled about, was done in by some timely technological innovations. The underlying premises changed around him, and it wasn't a valid analysis anymore. Today's capitalists (not that they don't have a lot to answer for) are more or less in the same boat that Malthus was. They may find themselves outside the range of their base assumptions as well, at which point the study will adapt again--is adapting--still trying to describe the world accurately, and hopefully not forgetting the previous lessons. It's interesting how economic theory has supported governing or dominant-class interests (like mercantilism, or the capitalism of today) or opposed them (like Marxism, or Enlightenment-vintage capitalism) at various points in history, but it's pretty much always been some kind of explanation of known events and concerns, and that won't disappear soon.

A running theme of much post-collapse thinking is that old skills will become valuable again. Probably true, but I'm extremely wary of romantic views of the past. Oil's long twilight won't be a succession of porch-time family story hours and monthly community music, knitting on a dusky quiet eventing, surrounded by fireflies or crackling wood fires, miles from the nearest neighbors. Or it won't just be that. Frontier arts might become valuable knowledge, but they are still unlikely to make you top dog in the community, which won't just go away. It may be fulfilling, but that's a challenging life, harder still if your family's survival depends on the yearly whims of the weather. Or the whims of the local power structures. Romantics hope that the powers won't have all that much reach, but that sounds ahistorical to me. We imagine that the dominant culture will improve to something less coercive, but frankly, that sounds inhuman. One thing I'm sure of, is that the future won't be a return to the past, and certainly not to a fake, idealized past. I don't believe that humanity's been around anywhere near long enough to have exhausted the possible modes of coexistence. We may go somewhere worse, but it's safe to say it will be somewhere different.

Modern economics has brought plenty of new insights and methods, and if theories of agricultural production and land rents become important again, it's not going easily back to the pre-math days, any more than society is going to suddenly forget about the germ theory of disease, or of civic organization, or how guns work. If computation energy is harder to come by, then abstract knowledgable pursuits might divert themseleves into gentlemanly or monastic activities again, sure. (If my post-collapse descendents become bookleggers, my ghost will look favorably on them.) But even in the friggin' dark ages of the West, when the political means basically evaporated, practical technology still kept going, whether adapted from the achievements of the past or the achievements of the East. There were a number of important technological developments in the middle ages, which is why when European society gradually woke up (and gave birth to protestants, anti-monarchists, modern science, and new economics) it didn't look much like primitive Rome anymore. We probably shouldn't exclude political developments, either--ugly and violent, many of them, but they did stabilize society for long stretches.

So holding on to practical and frugal life skills? Sounds smart to me, but even if we find ourselves a hundred years out envying the 21st century third world, there's still no way we're going to discard the present. It'll loom over us like the past does today. We'll start from the current understanding, and adapt it (well or poorly) to meet the constraints of the day. Unlike the old Druids, or even the Romans, we've produced such a colossal quantity of recorded knowledge, it's hard to imagine it won't keep turning up for centuries this time.

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