Thursday, June 11, 2009

Anger and Unfulfilled Promises

Another thought on anger, backlash and science in the popular mind. I was reading the latest from Tom Whipple on Peak Oil and think he may be dancing around a meme that the growing negative mood could harness to rip through the population like a firestorm:

The Peak Oil Crisis: A Letter From Baghdad
by Tom Whipple, Falls Church News Press
A couple of weeks back the peak oil community received a letter from an officer serving with our forces in Iraq.Despite numerous distractions in Iraq these days, this officer is so concerned that peaking world oil production will soon become a serious problem that he began discussing the future of America's energy supply with soldiers in his unit. What he concluded has a message for us all.

He found that most people have no trouble accepting the premises of peak oil- that there is a finite amount of crude underground, that the easy and cheap to extract oil is nearly gone and that world production will go into an unstoppable decline. The disconnect from reality, however, comes when contemplating the consequences of this event, for nearly all believe there are many obvious alternatives to oil. We know what they are: nuclear, solar, wind, waves, tides, shale, oil sands, coal-to-liquid, biomass, etc., etc. In the mind of most, it is a rather simple matter of switching from oil to any or all of the alternatives so that life-as-we-know-it can continue without missing a beat...

...This all-will-be-well message is always bereft of detail. Nowhere is there mention, of the vast amount of oil being consumed around the world each day, anticipated rates of depletion from existing oil fields, nor of the trillions of dollars that will be required to finance the next round of exploiting increasingly more difficult to recover oil. From time to time, the message is punctuated with the word "technology". Not any particular technology, just the implication that the technology which has brought our civilization this far will be there when we need it...

Just as I believe you'll see show trials of finance execs and political big shots in the coming years as the Great Collapse unfolds, you'll see plenty of other scapegoating as well and I think science and technology as general concepts will be high on the hit list.

As I've mentioned before, I regard Peak Oil as a real issue related to actual physically measurable recovery and depletion rates of petroleum (and natural gas) as extracted by our currently built-out infrastructure, distributed by the legacy infrastructure built out over the great era of optimism we departed from beginning in 2000, and governed and heavily taxed by the existing political elites. Oil and natural gas, extracted as we know it today, will deplete. "Oil" sands, tar mats, shales, etc. have vast and known problems of scale-up.

But I also believe in the primacy of social mood as a driver of technology trends. Technology and science - long suppressed by princes and potentates - has had a good run over the last three hundred years or so. Materialist science smashed a corrupt religious orthodoxy and liberated untold millions from hardship. But all trends shift. As I've written before - had Peak Oil occurred in the 1950's, some sort of great crash program would have been devised to meet the challenge and deal with the huge reorganization of society it would have required.

Peak Oil hitting in a time of negative mood will almost certainly lead to a charlie foxtrot of disbelief, outright denial, infighitng among pressure groups who think they can benefit from it and in the end, any large movements or efforts to mitigate Peak Oil's effects will collapse in a heap of wasted energy.

One can easily imagine how the Peak Oil meme - which I regard as an outstanding meme that could be used to encompass and express much of the anger and fear that will boil over as this Grand Supercycle Bear claws away at us over the coming years - could devastate one area still relatively unscathed by popular anger - science and technology workers.

Everyone is constantly hears about "new technology" as Mr. Whipple points out above. When those promises can't be kept - and they can't - then all bets are off. The great god Tech, that millions bow down to every day, will be shown to have feet of clay. When the U.S. must learn to live within her own oil production capabilities - with maybe a few million barrels per day in imports - then the worm could turn. Throw in the "magical thinking" that occurs in bear markets and you have a recipe for blowback that could devastate science and technology for centuries. If algae-based biodiesel can't be scaled up rapidly, I can easily see the science staff of many U.S. National Labs undergoing a purge that Stalin would have been proud of. When the natural gas pipelines begin dying once there is not sufficient gas to keep them pressurized, haul out the renewable energy techies who swore they could get microbe-generated natural gas up and running and send them to work camps for failing The People (if you think that is just me being extreme, read up on the Chinese Cultural Revolution some time).

In a perverse way, a retreat from technological-intensive work could meet many needs. For example, a collapse in agricultural output - driven by destruction of credit available to farmers, lack of fuel for equipment, bankruptcy of companies that distribute food goods, etc. - could play right into a "back to the land" and "all organic" movement. The mood change could be there to "drop out." The extra workers needed to intensively farm would be there - these former stock brokers will still have to put food on the table somehow. An artist of some sort will almost certainly step forward and feed this psychological need for justification by writing a novel glorifying a neo-Luddite lifestyle or directing a smash hit film running down tech geeks and big brain scientists and playing up the drop-out lifestyle.

This is obviously just speculation right now, but I think that as more and more faith and hope is placed in "technology" - the potential for a disastrous reaction when that faith is shown to be baseless - builds.

The wheel of socionomics grinds on. Make sure you do not get caught between it and the grinding stone.

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