Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An Invitation to Anarchy

It is a common saying that "politicians are the lowest form of humanity." It seems they are all either crooks or liars, or perhaps in some cases mere fools, and that there is nothing more to be said. Politicians -- even such as Hitler, Stalin, or Mao -- must appeal to the masses, and the masses just want somebody to tell them what to do. It's a closed circle of masters and slaves. (In Darkness at Noon, Koestler says this extreme passion for dominance and submission seems evidence of an inherent insanity in all humans. Maybe.). In other words, politicians seem to furnish proof of the validity of Dunbar's Number, 150, the maximum practical size for a human group. Democracy is impossible in any group that is too large for people to know one another personally. Industrialism and large numbers go together, unfortunately, no matter how much it may be claimed that only a few adjustments are needed to set a large-scale political system back on the right track.

Hence the interest in theories of anarchism, ranging from the gentle syndicalism of Kropotkin to the less patient proposals of Bakunin. Almost any religious group that refuses military conscription and refrains from taking public office, e.g. the various conservative sects known as Anabaptists, is anarchist in all but name. Yet it is Bakunin’s image that has prevailed -- partly, no doubt, because politicians have wanted it that way, in order to maintain a bad image, but perhaps also because most people fear that a world without government would be fraught with danger. "Anarchism" and "anarchy," however, have complex and obscure differences in connotation.

The word "anarchist" is unfortunate, because it is used to describe so many different theories and practices. Thoreau is often called an anarchist, and probably many people nowadays would put themselves roughly in his category. In other words, it may be regarded as rather hopeless to wait for a politician to do anything useful, and one must be independent and self-sufficient. But the term is more generally thought of as exemplified either by Kropotkin or Bakunin, although probably many "anarchists" have never bothered reading the works of either of those gentlemen -- or of Thoreau. In any case, it is a word that needs more-precise definitions if it is be used at all.

One characteristic of anarchism is that it "doesn’t work." It would be impossible to run General Motors along anarchist guidelines. Nor could the President of the United States send an army to invade another country if that army were composed of anarchists. Perhaps partly for that reason, anarchism is often based on the assumption that one is removed from the larger society; most anarchist religious groups, for example, have tended to emigrate to the less-populated areas of the globe. A decentralized political structure precludes the extreme division of labor found in industrial societies: General Motors requires a great many separate roles, and such extreme division of labor is not possible for a small number of people. In any practical sense, an anarchist movement intending to operate on a larger scale either advocates the dissolution of large political and corporate groups, or assumes that such dissolution will happen as some sort of historical necessity -- or both.

Anarchism of the sort found in Spain in the 1930s, however, is fundamentally flawed. To talk about an entire country being run or organized under anarchism becomes a self-contradiction. Any situation of non-government -- an-archos -- has to entail separation from the mass of society, if that mass has a population in the thousands or millions. It is mainly pre-industrial societies that tend to be anarchic, or at least rather loose in their manner of decision making, and a situation of that sort is fine if "society" is only a few dozen people sitting around a campfire. Even then, the most primitive tribe still has various patterns of status and obligation. But on a larger scale a fairly egalitarian, non-authoritative social system even of that not-so-primitive type would be unworkable. For the modern day, when everyone is shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone else, and with dark clouds all around the horizon, what is needed is a transition to a more "tribal" life, a communitas that is both more isolated and more independent.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Nostalgia for the Primitive

Saturday Night at the Rain Dance
After a sojourn of several months last year in Nova Scotia, a province with severe poverty and all its consequences, living among people who have what is called an uneasy relationship with the law, I should have lost all interest in "going back to the land." I know, however, that the percentage of low-lifes in urban areas isn't much different from that in rural areas, and that the proportion will be the same for a while to come, so moving to a city doesn't mean an improvement in the neighborhood.

In terms of "going back to the land," though, or perhaps "remaining back on the land," I eventually made one curious discovery, after re-reading Geoffrey Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads. For years I'd worked on the basis of the fact that only 10 percent of the surface of this planet is arable. One would then think that the answer is to go back to foraging (hunting and gathering), since that would mean having access to the remaining 90 percent, the non-arable. I later began to think, however, that such a plan wouldn't be very clever, because foraging requires far more land per person than farming -- so there would be no real gain in the end, at least in terms of the ratio of people to resources.

But even later it seemed to me, after re-reading Blainey, that the second assumption of mine may have been unjustified. My present line of reason begins with the point that foraging, in that aforementioned 90 percent, works only for those who have a thorough knowledge of the subject -- i.e. an extraordinary knowledge of all the flora and fauna. But that is precisely what the average modern Caucasian deer-hunter does not have. How many once-a-year deer-hunters can also recognize a dozen species of edible wild fruit in their area, or know how to make and use a gill net? And how many so-called native people nowadays have such knowledge?

It might therefore be the case that if one could develop an excellent knowledge of primitive survival-skills, it would be possible to utilize that 90 percent, the non-arable land that nearly all people of today know nothing about. The non-arable 90 percent of Earth's surface would, of course, have to be studied as intensely if this were a new planet. In fact, because the Paleolithic was generally left behind about 10,000 years ago, the non-arable parts of Earth would now look quite "Martian" from the perspective of modern humans.

Having said all the above, though, I must emphasize that "returning to the land" would still only be possible for a few people -- if perhaps not not quite as "few" as I had once been assuming. Blainey's point about the non-arable being potentially accessible, even if only to those with the right knowledge, nevertheless strikes me as a useful observation.

Various caveats must be kept in mind. When traditional technology is lost, it cannot just be re-learned overnight at a later date -- because primitive technology is not "simple." Yet when native people lose their native technology, and they also lose modern technology, based on fossil fuels, modern metals, and so on (as they will fairly soon, along with all the rest of us), they are then left with nothing. The native population of Canada's north, for example, will have no way of making a living in the next few decades and will therefore have a population plunging toward zero.

My main point, however, is that anybody, native or non-native, who does manage to learn that ancient technology will have a chance of surviving in the world's huge non-arable environment. It all comes back to Blainey's basic statement that primitive technology long ago enabled the natives to occupy 100 percent of the land, whereas modern white people only have the technology to occupy a small percentage.

I started re-reading Blainey's book when I was doing one of many perusals of the manuscript for my Tumbling Tides. I suddenly remembered that my own last chapter, which at one point touches on some controversial questions of "re-wilding," was based in part on various comments by Richard B. Lee. One of Lee's theories, roughly speaking, is that the people of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa are remnants of a utopian Old Stone Age society, and that the life they live there has been basically unchanged for 10,000 years -- or at least it was until the 1960s.

I knew that Edwin N. Wilmsen had written a book called Land Filled with Flies, in which he says that Lee's theories are dead wrong, and that the Bushmen, or !Kung or San or whatever they should be called, are not the direct descendants of any ancient Stone Age culture, that they're just a bunch of "rural poor" (to use the term I later found on the last page of the body of his text). According to Wilmsen, these people simply got shoved out into the desert in recent times by the Bantu, who are cattle-raisers and who didn't want the Bushmen using the land. So I read Wilmsen's book, which is very persuasive. I then went into full panic, reading several other documents on this controversy, until I finally realized that it may be Wilmsen himself who is making mistakes with all the data. Still, it was good to do a careful study of all that. Far better than to have my own upcoming book reviewed at Amazon one day, get myself dismissed as an intellectual minor-leaguer, and find myself going back to delivering pizzas.

In any case, an important part of the solution to my own problem of finding "real" Stone Age people was to look again at Blainey's book about Australia. The advantage of considering the natives of Australia, vs. those of the Kalahari, is that there is no danger that the former are just losers in some sort of recent multicultural struggle. They arrived in Australia many thousands of years ago, and they lived there in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world.

In terms of the danger of getting roasted, as Wilmsen tries to do with Lee, I already have too many problems with people who think an earlier book of mine, Survival Skills of the North American Indians, is supposed to teach them how to play with rubber tomahawks or something. In fact, that book is not intended as a "survival manual," suitable for retarded Cub Scouts. I leave such nonsense to the many other texts prominently displayed on book-store shelves. My own book is a detailed cross-cultural analysis of material technology, and assumes that the reader is already beyond rubber tomahawks.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Proof That This Is the End of the World

 1.    Fat people have discovered that if they skip sideways they look elegant and their thighs don't rub together.

 2.    It's regarded as self-evident that any book is just a rough idea for a movie.

 3.    Nearly all people think if they're asked, "How are you?" the correct answer is, "I'm good."

 4.    A savings account is something you don't touch until Monday.

 5.    "Classroom management" means begging children to stop swearing.

 6.    Many people think bottled water is safer than tap water, and that grinding up all those bottles provides jobs for the under-privileged.

 7.    People assume touchy-feely airport security-guards just need some human contact.

 8.    If you call a library and ask if they have anything by Shakespeare, they say, "Is that a first name or a last name?"

 9.    Because pets are so expensive, dog owners are switching to mop dogs, which live mainly on other dogs' poop.

 10.    The average university student says "like" 12 times in a 25-word sentence.

 11.    Most people would rather sit for an hour in a drive-in lane for a hamburger than walk in the door.

 12.    Anything heard on the evening news is is regarded as gospel truth.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Systemic Collapse: A Time Frame

A time frame for systemic collapse can be extrapolated from a chart of estimated past and future oil production. The production chart shown here is from Campbell and Laherrère’s 1998 Scientific American article, "The End of Cheap Oil," and most other estimations give a reasonably similar curve. Roughly speaking, with a 3 percent annual decline, the world's oil production in 2030 will be half that of the peak amount. I am excluding, of course, every flash-in-the-pan "Miracle of X Energy," which ranges from solar power to chicken manure to shale. All other visions of "doom" are trivial in comparison with that of the decline in hydrocarbons: neither real-estate speculation nor climate change is going to have so great an effect on the human world.

Most of the subsidiary time frames for collapse -- such as those for electricity, for the general economy, and for population -- will parallel that curve, for the simple reason that everything in modern industrial society is tied to the production of oil, and to a lesser extent other fossil fuels.

In "The Olduvai Theory" (The Social Contract, Winter 2005-06), Richard C. Duncan points out that the failure of electricity will be the first really distinct, "on-off" indicator of collapse. His reasoning is that, although fossil fuels are the primary sources of energy in our industrial civilization, we need to keep in mind the importance of "end use."

Electricity wins hands down as our most important end-use energy. To wit: I estimate that 7% of the world’s oil is consumed by the electric power sector, 20% of the world’s natural gas, 88% of the coal, and 100% each for nuclear and hydroelectric power. The result is that electric power accounts for 43% of the world’s end-use energy compared to oil’s 35%.

Since mining, manufacturing, and transportation are all dependent on oil, the next parallel can be found in the rather broad topic of economics, with issues ranging from price inflation to unemployment. I suspect this will be in two "phases," divided by the point at which money as such is no longer an important means of exchange; past examples occurred with the crash of the USSR, and in Weimar Germany.

Because of famine caused by a failure of agriculture in the absence of fossil fuels, the fall of population will appear as roughly another parallel to the decline in fossil fuels. Some critics have said that the two do not necessarily go together -- or, rather, "fall" together. Yes, of course, it is possible that to some extent humanity will learn to "make do with less." But that remedy can only be stretched so far, for a simple mathematical reason. In modern industrial society, fossil fuels are the source of more than 90 percent of the energy -- in the strictly scientific sense of the word "energy." If we take away 90 percent of the energy, we necessarily take away most of the population. And we cannot replace that 90 percent of the energy with some "alternative" form, because there isn't enough of any mysterious "alternative energy" to make much difference. Again roughly speaking, a 50 percent decline in oil will be matched by a 50 percent decline in population -- mainly by famine.

Incidentally, a voluntary reduction in population would not work. For that matter, neither would a mandatory reduction in population, and for the same reason. As stated, oil production will be falling about 3 percent annually. Even if every woman on earth stopped having children from this day forward, an utterly impossible situation anyway, birth control in itself would not enable a 3 percent annual reduction in population. At best, an immediate and universal "No Child Policy" would accomplish very little. Growth rate equals birth rate minus death rate, but the present death rate is only about 1 percent, and even with an aging population it would not get much beyond 2 percent -- not enough, in other words, to match the fall in oil production.

It can be seen, therefore, that the curve of estimated past and future global oil production is not merely one of a myriad of problems with which mankind will have to deal. It is the time scale with which most other problems can be measured, and it is the cause of most other problems.

But if anyone really wants a magic number for a date of systemic collapse, a good choice would be that date of 2030. As stated, that's the date at which, with a 3 percent annual decline in oil production, the year's production will be half of that in the peak year. And half of peak oil means roughly half of everything else in human society. A very important "half" will be population, because the rest will have died of famine. And that last item is the one that very few people can mentally assimilate.

Peter Goodchild
Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)