Tolkien’s narrative no longer fits the crisis of our age as well as it did a few decades back. Our Ring of Power was the fantastic glut of energy we got from fossil fuels; we could have renounced it, as Tolkien’s characters renounced the One Ring, before we’d burnt enough to destabilize the climate and locked ourselves into a set of economic arrangements with no future…but that’s not what happened, of course.We didn’t make that collective choice when it still could have made a difference: when peak oil was still decades in the future, anthropogenic climate change hadn’t yet begun to destabilize the planet’s ice sheets and weather patterns, and the variables that define the crisis of our age—depletion rates, CO2 concentrations, global population, and the rest of them—were a good deal less overwhelming than they’ve now become. As The Limits to Growth pointed out more than four decades ago, any effort to extract industrial civilization from the trap it made for itself had to get under way long before the jaws of that trap began to bite, because the rising economic burden inflicted by the ongoing depletion of nonrenewable resources and the impacts of pollution and ecosystem degradation were eating away at the surplus wealth needed to meet the costs of the transition to sustainability.That prediction has now become our reality. Grandiose visions of vast renewable-energy buildouts and geoengineering projects on a global scale, of the kind being hawked so ebulliently these days by the prophets of eternal business as usual, fit awkwardly with the reality that a great many industrial nations can no longer afford to maintain basic infrastructures or to keep large and growing fractions of their populations from sliding into desperate poverty. The choice that I discussed in last week’s post, reduced to its hard economic bones, was whether we were going to put what remained of our stock of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources into maintaining our current standard of living for a while longer, or whether we were going to put it into building a livable world for our grandchildren.The great majority of us chose the first option, and insisting at the top of our lungs that of course we could have both did nothing to keep the second from slipping away into the realm of might-have-beens. The political will to make the changes and accept the sacrifices that would be required to do anything else went missing in action in the 1980s and hasn’t been seen since. That’s the trap that was hidden in the crisis of our age: while the costs of transition were still small enough that we could have met them without major sacrifice, the consequences of inaction were still far enough in the future that most people could pretend they weren’t there; by the time the consequences were hard to ignore, the costs of transition had become too great for most people to accept—and not too long after that, they had become too great to be met at all. .As a commentary on our current situation, in other words, the story of the heroic quest has passed its pull date. As I noted years ago, insisting that the world must always follow a single narrative is a fertile source of misunderstanding and misery. Consider the popular insistence that the world can grow its way out of problems caused by growth—as though you could treat the consequences of chronic alcoholism by drinking even more heavily! What gives that frankly idiotic claim the appeal it has is that it draws on one of the standard stories of our age, the Horatio Alger story of the person who overcame long odds to make a success of himself. That does happen sometimes, which is why it’s a popular story; the lie creeps in when the claim gets made that this is always what happens. When people insist, as so many of them do, that of course we’ll overcome the limits to growth and every other obstacle to our allegedly preordained destiny out there among the stars, all that means is that they have a single story wedged into their imagination so tightly that mere reality can’t shake it loose. The same thing’s true of all the other credos I’ve discussed in recent posts, from “they’ll think of something” through “it’s all somebody else’s fault” right on up to “we’re all going to be extinct soon anyway so it doesn’t matter any more.” Choose any thoughtstopper you like from your randomly generatedPeak Oil Denial Bingo card, and behind it lies a single story, repeating itself monotonously over and over in the heads of those who can’t imagine the world unfolding in any other way.The insistence that it’s not too late, that there must still be time to keep industrial civilization from crashing into ruin if only we all come together to make one great effort, and that there’s any reason to think that we can and will all come together, is another example.
Posted on Sunday, July 27th 2014