Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The future oughta be in pictures

We can't predict exactly what will happen during a given year in the future. Like, for example, 2050. Will I be alive then? Don't know. If I am, I'll be 82. Don't know where I'll be living, who my friends will be, what kind of clothes will be in fashion, whether or not I'll have full control of my bodily functions.

I do know that I'll probably use a lot less water than I do now. The Natural Resources Defense Council just released a study estimating that one third of all counties in the United States will be at "high or extreme risk" of water shortages and drought in the year 2050. Thanks to climate change, the report notes.

The map of affected counties looks like this:

The counties colored red are the ones that face the biggest risk of running out of water. More information on the NRDC report is here and here.

The forecasts in the report assume that demand for water (by homes, businesses, agriculture) continues to rise at current rates through 2050. I think it's safe to say that, at some point, the demand will be forced down, as useless uses of water are phased out. Like golf courses and lawns. The cause will be not only climate change but also the permanent, never-ending economic implosion enforced by energy descent. In a collapsing economy and super-heating world, we won't be able to afford water-guzzling luxuries like desert putting greens. Or Las Vegas casinos surrounded by giant moats.

Yet we continue throwing water away none the less, despite absolutely certain evidence of the coming shortages. Here's a scene from the courtyard outside my workplace:

A fountain vomits water into the open air on a 91 degree Albuquerque day in July. I might be missing something, but this use of water strikes me as monumentally dumb. The rate at which that water evaporates on a hot summer day  is, from what I understand, rather considerable. I'm not terribly knowledgeable on Albuquerque's hydrologic cycle, but it seems like much of the evaporated water will end up someplace other than New Mexico. The water that disappears into the air, as seen in the diagram below, eventually travels far from the Gushing Monument of Dumb, lurking just outside my office.

Maybe I'll check with the authorities in charge of that fountain, to ask them how much water it loses per day to evaporation. Maybe I'll also ask whether such water use is a good idea. Just to see the reaction I get. I expect that any proposal to get rid of the fountain, in favor of a more water friendly xeriscape decoration, will not get a friendly reception. It's a little like dealing with a lung cancer patient who still smokes three packs a day.

The future will always be unknown. But not completely unknowable. Pictures from the present can tell us a lot. Sooner or later, we'll have to start paying attention.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shadows out of time

I'm currently reading Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, a book by the great French historian Fernand Braudel. He wrote about the humble daily necessities of life in the centuries and millennia before the industrial revolution. Life back then centered on the absolute basics: food, housing, tools, and clothing, as well as the social practices surrounding them, like law and religion. In pre-industrial days such fundamental realities changed very slowly if at all, on time scales dwarfing a human life. Generations, centuries, millennia. The daily and seasonal routines defined human existence, placing strict limits on the possibilities of human enterprise, whether pursued by peasant or monarch or priest.

Unlike other historians of his time, Fernand Braudel didn't see history as the outcome of choices made by rulers. The people at the top of human societies started wars and rebellions; diverted the production of food and material by commoners for their own ends; preserved dynasties and struggled for political power. But everything the rulers did, Braudel maintained, was entirely constrained and channeled by the physical and cultural limits of limited resources and technology. These, in turn, were the domain not of war councils but of methodical, deliberate centuries of common labor, which made the fabric of everyday life.

Today, "history" is for most people a boring, forgotten subject from the childhood purgatory of decrepit public schools. Or, it's an electronic diversion piped into the home via cable television, filled with lurid, facile documentaries about wars and royal debauchery. History needs to be more than that. A way to prepare for what's coming. In the age of peak oil and extreme climate change, we will find a vital resource in scholars like Fernand Braudel, who devoted their lives to understanding what human societies were like in the days before hydrocarbon fuel. Those days spanned almost the entire past existence of humanity, dating back to the lost legendary times before the written word. When human beings wandered a pristine immensity of plains, forests and mountains, teeming with animals in the billions. Places ruled by birds and beasts and fish, vast beyond imagining beneath the vaults of heaven, untouched by cities and their reach.

Thousands of years have passed since those ages. Two great transformations of human life have happened in that time: the invention of agriculture, about 13,000 years ago, and the creation of cities, about 5,000 years ago. Further changes happened in the age of cities, as human beings improved their methods of building structures, producing food, exploiting animals, waging war, and so on. But all the changes took place over hundreds of years. An ordinary person typically lived only to age 40 or so, before being killed by accident, disease, or starvation. From the perspective of that lifetime, the routines of everyday life appeared to change not at all. The routines were like the mountains: apparently timeless, even though subtly shifting and changing their shape over huge lengths of time, at a rate too slow to see.

In the knowledge of those times we of the present will find practices and devices, from spinning wheels to ox-drawn plows, that need to be resurrected for the future beyond fossil fuels, which will be the remaining ages of humanity's time on Earth. Our past will also yield lessons to be learned and warnings to be heeded, of the catastrophes so common in the first age of age scarcity (ca. 200,000 B.C. to A.D. 1800).

The book I'm reading by Fernand Braudel describes two of the commonplace disasters: pestilence and famine. In the pre-industrial era, the threat of disease and starvation hung forever over every human life. One or two bad harvests could mean early death for whole communities. Monarchs may have hoarded excess food, but if crops failed the ruler still had to face rebellion by desperate subjects. And rulers had no more immunity to microbial slaughter than anyone else.

In the previous world of scarce energy, human communities lacked the means to protect against famine and pestilence. They were without industrial abundance but also without knowledge. Our descendants will once again exist without material abundance built on surplus energy. But they may, if all goes well, possess our scientific knowledge, of soil, plants, pests, fertilizers, and other facets of agriculture. The societies of coming centuries will also have, if all goes well, access to our knowledge of bacteria, viruses, nutrition, physiology, and the many other components of human health. Our descendants won't be able to build and operate huge mechanized farm machines or giant MRI devices, but they will know far more than our pre-industrial ancestors about the way the physical world actually works. Or so we can hope. In the best case scenario for the human future, ecotechnic civilizations will be inhabited by healthy, well-fed citizens, existing in low-energy, low-consumption, ecologically rooted settlements.

I'm going to try, in my upcoming description of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the twenty second century, to describe what the tentative foreshadowing of such a society might be like. We may not get there, but we have to try. Because of what's at stake, and what the future will look like if we fail.

We can behold that future in the most horrifying episodes of our pre-industrial past. Fernand Braudel tells of one such cataclysm, the Deccan Famine of 1630 in India. Unknown thousands upon thousands of people starved to death in the cities and countryside of the subcontinent. Perhaps millions. Braudel quotes a Dutch explorer who visited India during the famine:

People wandered hither and thither, helpless, having abandoned their towns or villages. Their condition could be recognized immediately: sunken eyes, wan faces, lips flecked with foam, lower jaw projecting, bones protruding through skin, stomach hanging like an empty sack, some of them howling with hunger, begging alms.

Braudel then writes in his own voice, "The customary dramas ensued: wives and children abandoned, children sold by parents, who either abandoned them or sold themselves in order to survive, collective suicides... Then came the stage when the starving split open the stomachs of the dead or dying to 'eat their entrails.' "

Braudel concludes with the words of the Dutch merchant who beheld these things:

Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people died, to the point when the country was entirely covered with corpses which stayed unburied, and such a stink arose that the air was filled with it and pestilential. 

The future will not be utopia. But it must not be hell. From the Mars novels of Kim Stanley Robinson: shikata ga nai. There is no choice.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The music of the ghosts

The civilization of ancient Rome lasted about a thousand years, from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD (in the lands around Greece an offshoot successor state lasted until 1453). From its beginnings as a tiny village in Italy, Rome came to rule the entire Mediterranean world. A map of Rome's empire in AD 117, when the march of the legions reached its farthest point, looks like this:

Across the immensity of that territory the Romans built cities, towns, roads, and farms. In their thousands upon thousands of settlements, built up over centuries of conquest, the Romans constructed not only their famous arenas, roads and aqueducts, but also villas, baths, sewers, temples, forums, amphitheaters, granaries, harbors, ships, mines and a myriad of the other complex edifices that make up the infrastructure of a thriving, economically vibrant, militarily powerful society. From that society, much remains. We have Roman poetry, drama, literature, history, and philosophy. We have the Latin language. We have sculpture and painting, and the heritage of Roman achievements in law, government, architecture, engineering, and war.

In AD 117, people with Roman citizenship occupied three thousand miles of land from the North Sea to the river valleys of Mesopotamia. No doubt it was unthinkable to the Romans that such a massive, monumental presence as Roman power would one day disintegrate. No one could imagine the day when people who thought of themselves as Roman disappeared from the face of the Earth. But that's what happened. Four hundred years after Roman rule reached its greatest extent, it was a memory.

The enormous physical and cultural scale of Roman civilization meant that at least some of it would survive that civilization's death. And much of it did, from the roads and buildings to the works of literature and art. Among the items salvaged from the wreckage were musical instruments. We know the Romans played music, that it was an important part of their customs and rituals.

But of all the things Rome built and did, all the vast stores of relics that survived the fall, we only have a single 25 second fragment of Roman music. That's all that remains of the songs and melodies played in houses and streets across the immensity of the Roman world for hundreds upon hundreds of years. The surviving fragment of music was composed by the musician Flaccus for the performance of a play by the dramatist known as Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, circa 195 to 159 BC).

This music has been performed by a Spanish ensemble called Atrium Musicae de Madrid. The fragment is entitled "Terencio. Hecyra 861." You can listen to part of it at the Amazon listing for an album by the group.

Rome left much, but its music has been lost. All of it, save one tiny little scrap. For all time.

I can't help thinking of this as a catastrophe. I read about the fragment from Flaccus in the most recent book by John Michael Greer, The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World. Greer mentions the 25-second musical remnant in order to illustrate how easily a priceless cultural heritage can be lost. The Romans didn't imagine their society going away, so they took no special steps to preserve their culture. Some of it survived anyway, because it took durable physical form, like the aqueducts. Some of the less durable items, like the literature, survived because they were methodically copied by medieval monks. But the Romans seem not to have written down their music. So all of it was lost.

Greer cautions that the same thing could happen to our culture in the decades and centuries ahead. Our books and periodicals are printed on paper that in a few decades will crumble to dust. Our digitized knowledge rests in computers that depend on a growing, fossil-fueled economy, for maintenance, parts, and electricity. Even with these things, hard drives don't last forever. In the coming age of depletion and decline, they will last even less. Our main means of storing information, including music, are paper, electrons, and silicon. Soon, Greer maintains, their economic and technological support system will begin to disappear. We have to start planning now, he says, for alternatives, in hopes of saving what we can.

Or our music could be as dead as the silent music of Rome.

* * * * * *

Anthropologists, historians, and other researchers can't conjure Roman music back into being. But they have managed to rebuild Roman musical instruments, from the records that survived. The researchers make informed guesses about the sort of music those instruments, catering to Roman tastes, might have made.

And then they ask musicians to play the results. Here's one of them. The echo of music played by ghosts, from a world that was lost.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Local heroes of history, future and gone

On the day after the Fourth of July I went looking for a grave. 

I had the day off, and I'd been reading about the history of Albuquerque, the place in which I live. As I mentioned toward the end of my last post, I have this notion that a crucial guide for our de-industrial future, in the age of declining fossil fuels, can be found in our past. In the days when fossil fuels were unknown, or their levels of usage much lower than today.

Whether we like it or not, we are headed back to those levels of energy use. There is nothing that can replace the fossil fuels, pumped up as they are with hydrocarbons that give more bang for the buck, with easier infrastructure requirements, than any other energy source. All the alternatives produce too little energy in return, like wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal. Or, getting a particular alternative up and running would require vast amounts of fossil fuels already running short, and acidifying the oceans, and super-heating the atmosphere. Fission or fusion power plants, for example, have to be built by petroleum powered vehicles, themselves made in factories electrified and heated mostly by coal and natural gas. The literature making the case for the inadequacy of alternative energy sources is quite large. For an introduction, I recommend the book The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, by Richard Heinberg.

The point is that the days of low-energy society are coming back. It behooves us to look back at what such societies were like before. We will find examples of things to relearn (local, sustainable agrictuture) and things to avoid (rampant racism and sexism). I've been curious as to what lessons might be learned from the history of the place I live now. What was Albuquerque, New Mexico like in the days before super-abundant fossil hydrocarbons bloated the city to its currently enormous size? Albuquerque today has 520,000 people in the city itself, and 850,000 in the greater metropolitan area.

In 1880, the year the transcontinental railroad arrived, the little town's population was 2,315. Over the next sixty years, the population grew steadily, as first the railroad, then automobiles and early civil aviation, brought raw materials and manufactured goods to the Southwest. After 1900, oil became increasingly abundant, driving explosive growth in the national transportation network. Railroads carrying diesel locomotives crisscrossed the United States. Armadas of cars zoomed along an expanding road net. Air fields sprang up in meadows across North America, allowing freight to hop its weigh across the continent. All of this brought new citizens, and their money, to set up businesses in the expanding desert community along the Rio Grande. The population growth of Albuquerque during the rise of fossil fueled transport looked like this:

1880: 2,315
1890: 3,785
1900: 6,338
1910: 23,606
1920: 29,853
1930: 45,430
1940: 69,631

(Population history is from Albuquerque/Bernalillo Country Comprehensive Plan 2002, available online at, accessed July 10, 2010.)

During that period, U.S. fossil fuel consumption rose as follows:

1880: 2.15 quadrillion BTU
1940: 22.96 quadrillion BTU
(see "Estimated Primary Energy Consumption in the United States, Selected Years, 1635-1945", in U.S. Energy Information Agency, Annual Energy Review, available at, accessed July 10, 2010). 

Nominal U.S. Gross Domestic Product (i.e. not adjusted to be shown in constant dollars) swelled:

1880: $10.4 billion 
1940: 101.4 billion
(GDP figures available from Measuring Worth, at, accessed July 10, 2010).

So energy use climbed steeply, driving rapid growth in the U.S. economy and Albuquerque's, despite a depression in the 1890s and again in the 1930s. Still, while growth was rapid, the overall use of fossil energy during the period was much lower than today. The U.S. Energy Information Agency reports that U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2008 was 83.436 quadrillion BTU. The EIA has an extremely comprehensive data set of U.S. energy production and consumption on its website.

By learning what Albuquerque's economy and society were like in the low-energy years of 1880 to 1940, I hope to get a useful starting point for an important exercise: anticipating what my city will look like at similar energy levels in the future, on the down-slope as fossil fuel supplies decline. Assuming that world oil production will peak sometime in this decade, with natural gas soon to follow and coal sometime this century, Albuquerque's energy levels will return to their 1880-1940 levels not too long after 2100, give or take. This projection, which is really just an educated guess, comes from looking at forecasts of likely future oil production compared to levels in the past. Here's just one example:

This graph comes from an especially doom-laden web site. This is not intentional. I use this particular graph, from a coincidentally grim and depressing web site, not to endorse doom and gloom, but because I find the graph nice, clean, and and handy. It illustrates how we can get a get a realistic handle on the future. It shows how global oil production in the early 22nd century will approximate that of Albuquerque's early fossil energy boom, circa 1900. The two eras lie at different ends of the bell curve; because of that separation in time, they will differ in other critical ways as well. Albuquerqueans of AD 2120 will have knowledge (I hope) of penicillin, radio, and many other nice things that their forefathers didn't know about in the late Victorian age of 1900. But the energy supplies available to Albuquerque a hundred years or so from today will still be Victorian in scale. My city will be limited, by hard physical realities, in what it can do to employ, house, feed, transport, and educate its citizens.

What future Albuquerque will see as limits, their ancestors of 1880 to 1940 experienced as buoyant, exuberant growth. They didn't have much energy to throw around by our standards, but they had more than their grandparents ever imagined. Reading popular histories about the early boom years of Albuquerque yields heroic, worshipful stories of the exalted leaders who built a modern city. These objects of hero worship were businessmen and politicians, for the most part, along with the stolid professionals of the solid middle class (doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects, and so on). In the conventional accounts, these men (and they were mostly men) turned the tiny 1880 cluster of adobe ranch houses into the sprawling modernist megascape of 1940's skyscrapers, railroads, airplanes, and asphalt. The heroes of Albuquerque's expansion era, according to conventional stories, were the men who helped the city grow.

What lessons do the stories of those men offer for the coming age? What can the heroes celebrated by a past age of energy ascension say to a future of energy descent?

* * * * *

In reading about New Mexico's early industrial, low-energy past -- and its heroes -- one name struck me in particular. Edmund G. Ross, governor of the New Mexico territory from 1885 to 1889. I had encountered that name years ago, during a hero-worship phase I went through in my youth. One of my heroes then was John F. Kennedy, thirty fifth President of the United States. In his book Profiles in Courage, Kennedy wrote about a Senator from Kansas named Edmund G. Ross. This Senator cast the deciding vote in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Ross' vote saved Johnson from being removed from office on trumped up charges with purely partisan motives. Such a development might have crippled Constitutional government in the United States.

In my memories of JFK's account, Ross' vote to save the President defied immense pressure from his Republican party colleagues and his constituents, who wanted Johnson's head. For casting his decisive vote for Presidential acquital, Ross suffered political and personal destruction. He was ostracized and vilified by nearly everyone he knew. He suffered evil stares, shoulders turned in silence, and strangers spitting at his approach. He lost his fight for re-election. And then, from what I remember of Kennedy's book, the Senator from Kansas faded into obscurity. I had images of him dying in a gutter sometime later.

In reading about New Mexico history recently, I wondered if this same man had become the territorial governor of New Mexico in the 1880s. Turns out that he did. Like so many others, including me, he went west in search of a new life.

After suffering political immolation over the Johnson impeachment, Ross went back to the Kansas newspaper business that had been his trade before entering politics. Then he went to points west. In 1880, the same year the railroad came to Albuquerque, so did Edmund G. Ross and his wife. He got a job working for the Albuquerque Journal newspaper, itself started in the same year by two of the men who brought the railroad to town. They were agents of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, Franz Huning and William Hazeldine. Huning and Hazeldine, along with their friend Elias H. Stover, had bought the land and swung the deals necessary to bring the railroad through Albuquerque. The rail and its iron horse behemoths were on the way to connecting sea to shining sea. Railroad promoters were, I imagine, good contacts for a newcomer like Edmund G. Ross. The three railroad operatives, Huning, Hazeldine, and Stover, dominated the politics and business and ballrooms of Albuquerque for the rest of the century.

I don't know how much they helped Mr. Ross, but it's clear that he made good. He got a new start in politics in his new home. In 1885, President Grover Cleveland appointed Ross governor of the New Mexico territory. From what I can gather in a not necessarily complete search of historical accounts, Ross' term was undistinguished. Mainly, he fought with the state legislature in Santa Fe. It was controlled by a nefarious ring of political tycoons known as "the Santa Fe ring." They were Hispanic ranchers and businessmen who envied and hated the rising Anglo business class of Albuquerque. Upstart easterners like Albuquerque's Huning-Hazeldine-Stover triumvirate threatened the interests that had dominated New Mexico since the days of Spanish rule. Led by the enterprising interlopers from the east, Albuquerque was spreading across the desert along the Rio Grande, as the railroad brought daily mountains of raw materials and trade goods, with thousands of new settlers every year. This wouldn't do. I gather that the men in Sante Fe tried to stop it, or at least harass it, and they held a stranglehold on the legislature.

Ross tried to break them, campaigning for laws that would bring homesteaders to the state, taking over the land grants held by New Mexico's old families. He also tried to get legislation to promote mining, farming, and public schools, and give further favors to the railroads. All of that would have fueled the burgeoning growth of Albuquerque and the influx of eastern newcomers to New Mexico as a whole. Ross, like the Albuquerque business barons who supported him, fought for growth. That's what made them heroes to the boosters of business expansion, then and now. They were emblems of the age, when rising fossil energy supplies fueled relentless economic and industrial Progress. Modern Albquerque, which would later grow to 225 times its 1880 population, got its start in the days of Edmund G. Ross. It was a process he tried mightily to help.

Mostly, he failed. Ross lost to the Santa Fe ring at every turn. I don't know much about the details, but it appears that Ross' adversaries surpassed him in parliamentary skill and political savvy. They beat down his attempts to promote new settlement and economic growth. But the growth came anyway. Railroad-driven Albuquerque continued to swell. Ross failed, but the future he fought for still came.

He did have one important victory. Ross supported a bill in the legislature to establish a state university in Albuquerque. And it passed. He signed the bill on February 28, 1889. The University of New Mexico was born. In a way, I owe Governor Ross my job. I work at UNM today. I'm not sure how Ross managed to get this bill through, but evidently it was part of a deal that appealed to the Santa Fe ring. In return for Albuquerque becoming the site of the new university in the bill, Santa Fe would get the new state prison and Las Vegas, New Mexico, would get the insane asylum. Somehow the Santa Fe ring saw that as a victory. I imagine Ross telling his aides, hurry, let's sign it before they change their goddamn minds!

When Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, took office as President in 1889, he removed Ross as governor of New Mexico. Territorial governors held their position at the pleasure of the President, and Ross was a Democrat, having abandoned Lincoln's party after the trauma of the Johnson trial. Ross went back to the newspaper business. He led a quiet life. As time passed, more and more people admired him for his vote to save the President in the crisis of 1868. He came to be regarded, by the turn of the century, as a hero. Not for having promoted economic growth, but for having saved the Republic by an act of conscience. Later historians would question whether that's what his act was. I'm
reminded of words that appear on the screen during the opening moments of the movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. "Maybe this isn't the way it was. It's the way it should have been."

In 1907, an old abolitionist agitator from Kansas, one Hugh Cameron, visited Ross in Albuquerque. He came bearing written testimonials to the former Senator from Kansas citizens, thanking him for his vote in the trial of the President. Ross died not long after, on May 8, 1907.

* * * * * 

Governor Ross was buried in Fairview Cemetery, in Albuquerque. In my reading about him, I realized that his tombstone in that graveyard stood only a couple of miles from my house. So I set out to find it, and pay a visit. For no other reason than to do it and later be able to say that I had. And, also, because it seemed worth doing, somehow. Hard to say why. Though I revel in the use of words, for this I couldn't find any that would do.

I walked with a friend along busy streets near the University of New Mexico in the early evening of July 5, 2010. We came to Fairview Cemetery, which contains around 16,000 graves. We set out surveying the older portion of the grounds, in search of the resting place of Edmund G. Ross.

We found it, in a little enclosure, buried next to other members of his family. His tombstone on that day looked like this:

It felt like a bit of a triumph, finding the grave among all those thousands. It's a humble little block of stone. Not some ornate monument like others in the cemetery. There's no imposing, macabre mausoleum, like the ones that lurk under the pine trees here and there across the Fairview grounds.

Seeing the grave wasn't a profound experience. I didn't come to any great revelation or catharsis or moment of transcendence. I just kind of smiled and took pictures in the light of the descending sun. And thought of the mortal man come to rest in that spot after the body's life was ended.

Edmund Ross is a footnote in the history of the American Republic. He played a crucial part at a crucial moment. Without Ross' vote, or so the heroic version of the tale goes, a government with power over millions might have changed for the worse. There would have been consequences, either way.

The American government's power would only grow. So would the industrial plant it oversaw, the engines and factories of capitalism, which were the lifeblood of one of the greatest empires the world would ever know. Ross, like others of his generation, dreamed of making that empire great, by stoking the growth and settlement of his little corner of it. Along the banks of the Great River, in the valley once ruled by the empire of Spain and the grace of God, who took it from the Indians who came there first, a long time ago.

Ross had a measure of fame. In some ways, he lived a typical hero's story, like those of literature and film and ancient story. A crucial choice at a defining moment, and a fall from grace. And redemption. A subsequent return to the simplicities of home and a quiet retirement, in the years of twilight, with his memories and the knowledge of the approaching end.

I read a story once, about a man born in the age of woolly mammoths who did not age. He lived for 15,000 years, eventually becoming an accountant in New York City. One day, walking to work in the 1990s, he passed a construction site. A wall fell over on top of him. End of the line. He stood looking down at his body, crushed under the rubble, with the angel of death next to him. He said to her (the angel appeared as a she): I had a pretty good run, right? I mean, 15,000 years, that's pretty good, isn't it? 

And she replied. You got what everyone gets. A lifetime. No more, no less.

* * * * *

What can Edmund G. Ross and the other heroes of his age offer to us, and those who will come after?

Ross and his generation enjoyed energy supplies similar to what the American Southwest will have in the early twenty second century. But that post-oil future, I think, will still be very different from the world of Edmund Ross. He lived with the knowledge that American industry would continue to expand, that thousands of new settlers would roll west every year, that this growth would continue, on into the bright and shining future celebrated at the gaudy, Utopian World Fairs of Ross' day. For him, a citizen of expanding Albuquerque, the future was a city that sprawled as far as the eye could see, conquering the desert as no earlier people had managed to do. The heroes of his age were the people who brought that future closer to becoming real.

If those heroes offer a lesson for the post-petroleum future, it lies in the differences between their world and the one our great-grandchildren will know. Heroes of the former time fought for a future of growth. Those of future America will fight for a decent life after growth is over, as energy supplies contract and the era of industrial abundance becomes a fading memory. Building a decent life in that future will be an even more vital task than paving the way to industrial expansion was in its day. Because creating a humane de-industrial society will be infinitely harder, and the stakes infinitely higher. People will have to learn to live on what their ancestors did: less energy, less material, less resources; humbler technology and settlements living within the landscape, instead of trying to subdue it. Right now, Americans don't know how to do those things. They can't even imagine them.

And they can't imagine the massive industrial expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth century shifting into reverse. Americans can't imagine a twenty first and twenty second century where the sprawling continental mass of skyscrapers, strip malls, airports, superhighways, and industrial farms has to be gradually converted and substantially dismantled, to make way for something else. The mega-machinery left by fossil fueled growth will have to be altered for an age with much lower energy supplies and a wildly shifting climate and biosphere. Multitudes of the buildings will have to be retrofitted, jury rigged, subdivided, and otherwise tinkered with. Many of them, along with vehicles and machinery of every kind, will have to be stripped for raw materials and parts. Abandoned housing tracts, industrial parks, and suburban shopping centers will have to be torn down, to make way for marketplaces, gardens, farmland, and other uses more suited to the realities of energy descent.

Undoing two hundred years of industrialism will consume the next two hundred years or more of our country. Or whatever succeeds it. We don't know what sort of political and cultural events will face our descendants. We don't know exactly how cities and communities in America will change. But we know they will be as radically different from ours as today's Albuquerque, a vast desert sprawl, is from the tiny railroad town by the Rio Grande in the year of our Lord 1880.

To build the industrial world, Americans looked to leaders who might show them the way. That's how human communities work. We're a hierarchical species, in many ways. We need leaders. The mechanisms for selecting them are different in a country like the United States which, at least in principle, is a constitutional, democratic republic. Still, even in a democracy, people choose someone with the power to make decisions. But hierarchy remains. Some have more power than others, democratically chosen or not.

In the industrializing society of late Victorian America, power wasn't necessarily democratic. Nobody elected John D. Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan. Nobody elected the railroad company officials who turned Albuquerque into an outpost of America's expanding industrial might. The company men and their successors made their city a flourishing metropolis in the desert. The industrial Republic of which it was part rose to dominate the planet and determine much of what the human future would be like. That process of American ascent, its guardians believed, needed heroes. Ordinary citizens of humbler means concurred.

America of the twenty second century and beyond will need heroes no less, but of a different kind. Leaders who will show people how to make a new world out of the old. Who won't see the end of growth as the end of the pursuit of happiness. Who will believe, and help others believe, that we still have it in our power to make the world over again. Not for Utopia, because that isn't possible. But for the better. A low-energy life where people are fed, and clothed, and housed, and protected from storms; where knowledge and freedom and equality are celebrated as the reigning ideals; where people are citizens instead of consumers; where they have livelihoods that allow them to provide for those they love and pursue a meaningful existence in their days on the Earth.

It's doable. It has to be. And we have to try. There is no other choice, unless we stupidly make no choice at all. Someone will have to lead the way. That's what a vanished world and its heroes can teach to ours, and to the one that's coming. Now the old heroes are ghosts, as we will be, too. But ghosts still have stories to tell.

On the fifth of July I went looking for a grave in a garden of sixteen thousand ghosts, for reasons hard to name. Maybe I came to hear a story. I would want that, if I were a ghost. Someone to listen to mine.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On the uses of history

What will a future defined by peak oil and climate change be like and how should we approach it? For me, one of the best ways to understand any future is to look at the past. We do that all the time in our personal lives, without thinking of it as peering into a crystal ball. It's just common sense. Why do I keep getting fired from my jobs? I have to understand the circumstances of those past incidents if I hope to get an answer and then act on it. Why is such-and-such person so angry and anxious all the time? Because they suffered long and grievous abuse as a child. Dealing with the emotions of the present has to begin with understanding the trauma of the past.

It isn't too much of a stretch to say that memory is the basis of understanding and behavior. That's why everybody says experience is the best teacher. Experience is memory, which is a guide to understanding why things happen, what works in responding, and what doesn't. And what is likely to come next.

The memory of a society is called history. In thinking about where our society is headed, and what to do as we hurtle into that future, our history will offer a crucial guide. I'll have more to say soon, in a separate post, on the application of history specifically to a future of ecological collapse. In that post, I'll serve up the next installment in the Rules of Collapsotopian Futurology.

For now, though, some thoughts on a more general topic -- why is the study of history good for anything at all?

* * * * *

When I was a graduate student in the field of U.S. history, I had lots of conversations with professors and fellow students on a certain anguished question. It came up a lot, and the question was: why bother? What good is history? Why study it, I mean? What purpose does it serve to know about the past?

We weren't just talking about how to get a job as a historian. Although that was part of it, since those jobs were regrettably rare. And still are, so I hear. No, mostly we wondered why, in the philosophical sense, anyone should bother studying dead people and their bygone days. There are lots of potential answers, from the political implications of past events, like the conflict over Palestine, to the aesthetic pleasure of the great stories to be retold. Several cable TV channels have exploited this last use of history rather profitably, in fact. 

I must have missed the gravy train. I got an MA in history from a program that used the past to understand the present, but not just for pleasure or politics. We studied history to address public problems and make policy, in an intellectually rigorous, responsible way. In the little scholarly community where I once spent a couple of years in misty Appalachia, this was the goal of historical study. I tried to pursue that goal by two means. First, by using history as a pool of information about a contemporary subject. Want to reform Social Security? You have to know how Social Security was created, how it evolved over the decades and why, what sort of modifications were tried and why, whether they succeeded or failed and why. This pool of information about the past is a pre-requisite for doing anything about Social Security in the present.

The second means of using history for present-day problem solving lay in the use of methods unique to historians, distinguishing them from other disciplines, offering a perspective and insight not otherwise to be found. Certain other fields, we apprentice historians knew, thought their methods more intellectually rigorous than the practices of our little trade.

We had the economists and the political scientists in mind. They weren't shy about telling us that they did, indeed, look down on historians. To them, we were collectors of jumbled, antiquarian arcana, who wrote about moldy, forgotten archives via rambling, literary-esque stories, which we patched together from a mass of personal biases and half-baked pseudo-intellectual blobs of incoherent thought. That's an exaggeration, but not by much. We history students really did feel like the inhabitants of an intellectual ghetto, on the wrong side of the tracks from the more respectable neighborhoods of academia-town. Well, I did anyway. I'm pretty sure I wasn't alone.

Mostly, our rivals derided us because historians didn't see quantitative models, statistics, and reductionist interpretations as the holy trinity of methodologies in the social sciences. Economists and political scientists did. In contrast to their gleaming high-tech instruments of scientificalistic inquiry, we celebrated an old fashioned, well-worn, reliable toolkit, tracing its origins back to Thucydides. And maybe much deeper into the ancient night than that.

Among the tools in our kit, which we never presumed to specify completely and authoritatively, were:

  • the comprehensive marshaling of written records about a subject from the human past;
  • the synthesis of information in those records via the use of the world's most powerful and sophisticated information processing tool, which is the human brain;
  • the description of the resulting synthesis within a narrative non-fiction story, chronicling events over time;
  • the interpretation within the narrative of events and their causes, by means of reasoned, systematic inference;
  • the grounding of that inference in the available written records but also in heuristic guidelines derived from thousands upon thousands of years of human culture;
  • the incorporation of statistics and other quantitative approaches into the narrative where appropriate;
  • the use where appropriate of theories, interpretations, and methods from the social and natural sciences to explain and analyze the events of the narrative;
  • the holding to a flexible, pragmatic notion of the word "appropriate' in the above context, within the bounds of logic and the use of empirical evidence.

The economists and political scientists thought that we historians scorned the use of quantitative methods, and therefore condemned us as narrow minded. I will admit that I personally felt intimidated by math, and I know that many of my fellow students (and faculty) felt the same. But I also came to know that many historians did, actually, use quantitative approaches in their scholarly work. Some deployed econometric models to interpret the history of railroads. Some extracted statistics from old probate records to illuminate the material culture of colonial America.

That didn't seem to matter much to the econometricians and poli-sci crowd. To them, historians remained willfully ignorant mathematical illiterates, end of story. Despite evidence to the contrary. So it wasn't we historians being close minded or issuing blanket denunciations of a different approach. It was the other guys, who steadfastly insisted that numbers were the only valid form of knowledge and anything else was, basically, bunk.

The number fetishists got it exactly wrong. Quantitative knowledge is essential, especially in the natural sciences, where we have a good idea of what to quantify (atoms, molecules, energy flows in an ecosystem, the physics and chemistry of plate tectonics, and so on). But quantification isn't always possible. And numbers only tell us so much, especially in the area of human societies and cultures. We know, for example, the numerical value of goods and services produced in an economy, and we can quantify the ecological damage inflicted by the economy's machines. But numbers alone can't tell us why a society adopts one system of production over another, or why that system succeeds or fails, or how conflicts about the system's rules and results are resolved or not, and why.

Numbers can't interpret those conflicts because they are found in culture. Anthropologists, historians, and others define that term, roughly, as an intangible body of ideas, values, emotions, symbols, and customs, circulated through a society to give that society a sense of psychological cohesion, producing a shared mental universe rooted ultimately in the metaphysically complex interiors of the human brain. Out of that instrument come songs and stories, speeches and rituals, images and the emotions they evoke -- a swastika, a crucifix, a six pointed star. The intangible meanings behind these entities are transmitted like ghosts from one brain to the next, by the alchemy we experience as human communication (voice, writing, music, pictures, facial expression, sex, and much more). The alchemy passes the meaning through time from one generation to the next.

None of that can be represented solely in numbers, the way scientists do with quantum mechanics or molecular genetics. Unless memetics, the proposed quantitative scientific study of cultural transmission, ever takes off the way its proponents have hoped. In my opinion, it won't. Quantifying culture and the human behavior it governs will never happen. Not in the same straightforward way that has worked for genes and atoms. We know culture and society reside in the mental realm, which we know is found in the brain. We can do visual scans of brain activity, watch certain regions flash more intensely. We can measure the microscopic firings of neurons. We can determine, as neuroscience has in fact done, that the ability to learn languages is innate in a child's brain, not instilled by socialization.

But we don't know how any of these things give rise to basic components of culture, or to the rules that govern it. We can't measure, quantitatively, what culture fundamentally is, or its building blocks, much less its laws. Because culture isn't any single, physical thing, like an atom, or an amino acid molecule. It transcends individual components, and so it can't be measured, not in the way we can do with more clearly defined, contained entities and their laws. Like atoms and genes. We won't find the equivalent of atoms or genes for culture, because they aren't there to be found. Alchemy doesn't work like that.

So instead we do what we can. We gather the physical, macro manifestations of culture -- documents, stories, songs, pictures, symbols. We analyze them using our unaided brains, augmented by whatever numbers or other data we can get (how many documents were found, when were the songs composed, how were the pictures made?). And then we put it all together. We synthesize, as historians would say. Based on that big picture view, we ask what seem to us to be the key questions. What happened? Why did it happen? And so what? And around those questions we build a narrative. A story. Non-fiction, but a story all the same.

We do this all the time in daily life. With our families, our jobs, our decisions. Based on our experiences of the past, we have a sense of how the future will go. We can't say for certain what the future holds for the organization that pays our wage. But we can see how workplaces change over time, how they succeed or fail, and from this we get a sense of the possibilities for our own livelihood. At home, we don't know exactly how the lives of loved ones will turn out. But from experiences of our own family and others, we know what sorts of crises or turning points might happen. Or will happen, no matter what. We don't know when we will die, but we know that we will.

It's the same with the approaching future of global ecological upheaval. We can use history and memory to shine a light into the shadows of the next age and discern some of its features. We can't know everything, but we can have a guide at least, to certain passages, certain properties of the landscape. Certain aspects of what might happen, and how human communities might respond.

More next time.