Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Do the folks in charge know what they're doing?
Richard Heinberg

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As I write this essay, the U.S. is embroiled in post-election chaos. The nation that styles itself the world's foremost democracy is having difficulty choosing its next president, due not only to the closeness of the vote, but also to antiquated election procedures, confusing ballots, and outright electoral fraud. What was intended as a well-choreographed ritual has descended into low farce.
Despite the stress and frayed tempers, there is a quality of delicious uncertainty about the exercise. Unlike all the execrable TV political ads and the excruciating presidential debates, the events of mid-November have been largely unscripted. Ordinary people are actually talking about electoral reform, rather than merely comparing and contrasting candidates' personalities and nostrums. For a few days or weeks, we have entered a Twilight Zone in which it is possible to fantasize the possibility of real democracy, even to imagine a reality in which no one is president. I'm reminded of the saying, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans" For the moment, nobody is in control and anything could happen.
This temporary ripple in consensus reality invites fresh consideration of a much larger issue beyond the election - the future of industrial society in the face of oil depletion, global warming, and overpopulation. If the electoral process in the reigning global superpower is vulnerable to disruption, what about the rest of the world's political and economic control system? Do the folks in charge of the world (whoever they are) really understand the problems facing us all? Is the system they command capable of finding and implementing solutions? Are we standing on solid ground, or might it shift at any moment?
These are not questions amenable to objective, scientific examination and clear resolution; however, they are of such great subjective import that they cannot be ignored. The entire edifice of modern civilization is at stake, as well as what's left of the natural world and the lives of millions or billions of people.
In talking to students, colleagues, and friends about these questions, I've found that answers, while articulated in a wide range of ways, are usually variations on four basic themes:
1. Yes, the folks in charge know what they're doing. The problems confronting us may be serious, but they will think of something, and we'll all pull through, because the alternative is inconceivable. More information and more sophisticated technology ensure that the problems will eventually be solved. As a result, everyone will be better off.
2. Yes, the folks in charge know what they're doing, but their "solutions" to global problems are mostly diabolical. The global manipulators are incredibly knowledgeable and resourceful, but at the end of the day they are mostly interested in consolidating and protecting their own power base. They will not allow civilization to collapse into chaos, but their methods for "saving" it will entail the enslavement of virtually the entire planet.
3. No, the folks in charge don't know what they're doing, and it's a good thing. Their control over the world's peoples and resources is fragile and at some point will falter. The result could be an outbreak of populist, self-organizing anarchy - in the best sense of that term. The world's problems have mostly come about because of the global manipulators' actions, so we should not look to those same manipulators for solutions; rather, we should assume that when the rich and powerful are no longer in charge it will be easier for the rest of us to act in our own best interests, and to collaborate in the solution of the world's problems through the exercise of our collective, innate human genius.
4. No, the folks in charge don't know what they're doing, and the result will likely be horrific for almost everyone. Even though the global manipulators have created many of the problems now plaguing humankind, they have done so by simultaneously creating a system of dependency on which nearly all of us rely for life support. The collapse of that system will result in profound, widespread tragedy. Even so, the manipulators themselves may still come out relatively unscathed, given their immense stockpiled wealth. In the end, the only way they will suffer personally to any great extent is if humankind approaches extinction. But that possibility cannot be ruled out.
Now, it is of course likely that the situation is complex and cannot be characterized solely by any one of these options. I would argue that third and fourth are probably the most accurate: the ruling elites, despite immense power and wealth, are largely clueless; whether that will lead to good or bad results remains to be seen.
Most people I talk to disagree with me about this. So here, once and for all, I want to state my reasons for my position. What I propose to do here is, first, offer a brief parable expressing metaphorically my own take on the situation; next, state the evidence and reasoning for each of the four alternatives; and finally, discuss some implications.

Imagine yourself in the following circumstance. You have just awakened from sleep to find yourself on a tarpaper raft floating away from shore. With you on the raft are a couple of hundred people, most of whom seem completely oblivious to their situation. They are drinking beer, barbecuing ribs, fishing, or sleeping. You look at the rickety vessel and say to yourself, "My God, this thing is going to sink any second!"
Miraculously, seconds go by and it is still afloat. You look around to see who's in charge. The only people you can find who appear to have any authority are some pompous-looking characters operating a gambling casino in the middle of the raft. In back of them stand heavily armed soldiers. You point out that the raft appears dangerous. They inform you that it is the safest and most wonderful vessel ever constructed, and that if you persist in suggesting otherwise the guards will exercise their brand of persuasion on you. You back away, smiling, and move to the edge of the raft. At this point, you're convinced (and even comment to a stranger next to you) that, with those idiots at the helm, the raft can't last more than another minute or so.
A minute goes by and still the damn thing is afloat. You turn your gaze out to the water. You notice now that the raft is surrounded by many sound-looking rowboats, each carrying a family of indigenous fishers. Men on the raft are systematically forcing people out of the rowboats and onto the raft at gunpoint, and shooting holes in the bottoms of the rowboats. This is clearly insane behavior: the rowboats are the only possible sources of escape or rescue if the raft goes down, and taking more people on board the already overcrowded raft is gradually bringing its deck even with the water line. You reckon that there must now be as many as four hundred souls aboard. At this rate, the raft is sure to capsize in a matter of seconds.
A few seconds elapse. You can see and feel water lapping at your shoes, but amazingly enough the raft itself is still afloat, and nearly everyone is still busy eating, drinking, or gambling (indeed, the activity around the casino has heated up considerably). You hear someone in the distance shouting about how the raft is about to sink. You rush in the direction of the voice only to see its source being tossed unceremoniously overboard. You decide to keep quiet, but think silently to yourself, "Jeez, this thing can't last more than another couple of minutes! What the hell should I do?"
You notice a group of a dozen or so people working to patch and reinforce one corner of the raft. This, at least, is constructive behavior, so you join in. But it's not long before you realize that the only materials available to do the patching with are ones cannibalized from elsewhere on the raft. Even though the people you're working with clearly have the best of intentions and are making some noticeable improvements to the few square feet on which they've worked, there is simply no way they can render the entire vessel "sustainable," given its size, the amount of time required, and the limited availability of basic materials. You think to yourself that there must be some better solution, but can't quite focus on one.
As you stand there fretting, a couple of minutes pass. You realize that every one of your predictions about the fate of the raft has been disconfirmed. You feel useless and silly. You are about to make the only rational deductions - that there must be some mystical power keeping the raft afloat, and that you might as well make the most of the situation and have some barbecue - when a thought comes to you: The "sustainability" crowd has the right idea . . . except that, as they rebuild their corner of the raft, they should make it easily detachable, so that when the boat as a whole sinks they can simply disengage from it and paddle toward shore. But then, what about the hundreds of people who won't be able to fit onto this smaller, reconditioned raftlet?
You notice now that there is a group of rafters grappling with the soldiers who've been shooting holes in rowboats. Maybe, if some of the rowboats and their indigenous occupants survive, then the scope of the impending tragedy can be reduced. But direct confrontation with the armed guards appears to be a dangerous business, since many of the protesters are being shot or thrown into the water.
You continue working with the sustainability group, since they seem to have the best understanding of the problem and the best chances of survival. At the same time, your sympathies are with the protesters and the fisher families. You hope and pray that this is all some nightmare from which you will soon awaken, or that there is some means of escape - for everyone - that you haven't seen yet.

That's how I feel - most of the time, anyway. But a lot of other people don't feel the same way - or at least if they do they don't admit it. They regard me as a pessimist and themselves as optimists.
One of the optimists' main reasons for discounting forecasts of collapse is that similar past predictions have failed spectacularly. The raft is still afloat, after all. Remember Y2K? How about the Jupiter Effect? World Marxist revolution? Earth Changes? Or what about that prescient book, The Great Depression of 1995?

The elites have virtually unlimited resources of all kinds at their disposal. They certainly know all about petroleum depletion and global warming. They maintain armies of experts equipped with all the latest monitoring and mapping devices in order to determine the exact current status of every variable that could conceivably affect their interests. They hire teams of computer nerds to project significant trends far into the future so that risks can be avoided and advantages exploited. These people are simply too smart to allow the raft to founder. The folks in charge may be greedy, but they know that, in order to keep the ship afloat, they will have to make sure everyone's basic needs are met.
Sure there are problems, but potential solutions abound. While international industrial corporate capitalism constitutes a fairly young system, it has proven itself extremely resilient and adaptable. There will always be local catastrophes or temporary setbacks. But, over all, the marriage of science with high technology is propelling our species on an inexorably upward trend.
Who makes this case? Nearly all the paid spokespeople for the system itself - including journalists, commentators, and the entire public relations profession. Economists accept it as an article of faith; and of the economists, the late Julian Simons was perhaps the most bullish. He argued that it is in the nature of human beings to solve problems; the more humans there are, the more human genius is available to find solutions. Therefore the population "crisis" actually guarantees our extrication from all apparent dilemmas.
While this philosophy is nearly universal among economic conservatives, plenty of liberals also swear by it. Yes, the corporations have made a mess of things, the latter say, but corporations can be reformed. Even the oil companies realize that global warming and petroleum depletion will be bad for business. That's why BP's CEO, Sir John Browne, has said that his company's name should no longer be taken to mean "British Petroleum," but rather "Beyond " That's also why companies like Dow Chemical, Ford, General Motors, Mitsubishi, Monsanto, Shell, Sony, Texaco, Toyota, and Xerox have joined the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Environmentalists and human rights advocates must still be vigilant in convincing corporate foot-draggers to hop fully aboard the reform bandwagon, but the trend is clear: the folks in charge know in their heart of hearts that we will all have to change in order to survive.

Hold on - what about the WBCSD: just what is it, what are its plans, and who stands to benefit from it?
Made up of the world's 150 largest corporations, the WBCSD was formed in 1995 to work for "sustainable development, i.e., environmental protection, social equity and economic growth." The organization's aims, in its words, are "to develop closer co-operation between business, government and all other organizations concerned with the environment and sustainable development . . . to encourage high standards of environmental management in business itself [and] . . . to contribute through our global network to a sustainable future for developing nations."
Sounds pretty high-minded. And no doubt there are plenty of people at Shell, Toyota, etc., who genuinely hold those ideals. But might there be other motivations in play? There are cynics who say that the transnational corporations (TNCs), seeing the end of the petroleum era on the immediate horizon, view "going green" as merely an economic survival strategy. Corporate tactics may change, but basic goals don't: increase profits and market share, whatever it takes!

In an article titled Global Manipulators Move Beyond Petroleum (New Dawn, November-December 2000), Australian journalist Susan Bryce writes:
The corporations are now starting to unveil environmentally friendly technologies that they patented and locked away years ago. The TNCs must take control of alternative and renewable energy sources so that the masses continue to be dependent upon them. This way, continued profits and the stability of the world economy are ensured.
The TNCs have banded together to usher in a new era of "corporate responsibility." This new "ethic" will see TNCs becoming concerned with human rights, the environment, labour standards, women, and minorities. Corporate social responsibility means just that. The corporations will take responsibility for our social development.

Not only the corporations, but also the world's military and "intelligence" establishments are planning for survival in a world with rapidly diminishing oil reserves, unstable climate, disappearing fresh water supplies, and a vast and still growing human population. These institutions are able to hire the very best and the brightest engineers and analysts. What are these wise people planning? What's their idea of a "green" future? Start with a genetically engineered food supply. Add genetically engineered humans. Privatize fresh water and clean air. Pacify the populace with saturation levels of electronic entertainment. And create "sacrifice zones" - regions, even whole continents, where pollution, resource depletion, and famine can be localized - so that other zones can be "saved."

That's the reality of the elites' "green" agenda. And it's not a pretty picture.

Fortunately or not, this is a strategy of desperation that won't and can't work. The folks in charge may have plenty of brain power at their disposal, but all the geniuses in the world, lined up end to end, can't reach a solution in which the global control system survives in any recognizable form.
Why? The basis of all existence is energy: all living systems on planet Earth rely on energy derived ultimately from the Sun, and so do human social systems; the more complex the system, the more energy per capita is required for its maintenance. We are coming to the end of a century or so of burgeoning energy availability derived from fossil fuels. Within the next few years global petroleum production will peak and energy availability will begin to decline dramatically. The only alternative sources in sight (photovoltaics, wind, etc.) provide less energy at lower levels of concentration.
Previous complex societies have met analogous energy crises, and in every case the result has been the reversion of the society to a lower level of complexity - in common parlance, collapse. As archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out in The Collapse of Complex Societies, collapse is an economizing strategy (usually not deliberate) necessitated by serious and prolonged energy deficits.
But how do we know that the system's managers haven't foreseen petroleum depletion and somehow planned for it? After all, they're smart and they have a lot to lose if the ship goes down. They wouldn't make a blunder that big, would they?
Of course not - not if they were rational and had any choice in the matter. However, they are not and do not. So far as industrial society is concerned, fossil-fuel dependency constitutes a long-term trend. The trend began decades before anyone thought seriously about petroleum depletion and its ultimate consequences. By the time analysts had determined when the oil would begin to run out (they did this in the late '50s and early '60s), dependency was systemic and profound; and the production peak was far enough away that those in charge could only simply hope that somehow an alternative would appear. They've been hoping ever since.
We must remember that, no matter how well-funded an intelligence organization may be, and no matter how many satellites and computers it deploys, it is still fallible. Consider the CIA and its spectacular record of ineptness over the past few decades - its inability to foresee the revolution in Iran, its miscalculations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even information that has been gathered and processed by computers must still be evaluated and passed along the chain of command by human beings, and humans are never entirely rational.
Every organization tends to discourage unwanted information. If you happen to be an underling charged with carrying news to managers, you know that you are more likely to be rewarded if the news is good. For industrial society, petroleum depletion is the ultimate bad news. Nobody wants to hear it, so nobody wants to deliver it.
Suppose you're a senior executive at Boeing. Someone in the long-range planning department mentions in a report that petroleum production will peak around the year 2005, after which jet fuel will quickly become prohibitively expensive. You make an inquiry to your engineering staff, who tell you that there is no alternative to kerosene for fueling jets. The implication: by 2020, perhaps much sooner, it may no longer be possible to operate a commercial airline anywhere in the world. The responsible thing to do would be to pass this information along to clients - airlines and governments that are intending to spend billions of dollars to purchase new jets with a projected operating lifetime of thirty years. If you tell the clients, you will lose your job, the mortgage bills on your million-dollar house won't get paid, and your son or daughter might even have to drop out of college. Stockholders will sue the company for billions and everyone you've worked with will hate you. On the other hand, you could bury the report and continue with business as usual, take home the million-dollar bonus, and retire rich and happy. Tough choice.
Most CEOs and senior strategic managers are close to retirement. And it is a truism of management that, as one ascends the ranks, the time span between when a key strategic decision is made and when one becomes accountable for its consequences lengthens. It is one's successors who will have to deal with whatever mess results, and they in turn will be similarly motivated to pass the buck to their successors.
We must also remember that, while industrial capitalism is in many respects an integrated system, it is not controlled by a single unified power center, but rather by a feudal oligarchy of corporate, governmental, military, and intelligence establishments. Within and among these establishments there is often fierce competition. Managers spend much more of their time looking for short-term advantages over their competitors than they do considering the long-range picture of where society as a whole is headed.
There are, of course, some managers who do understand the long-range picture; but the most they can do, given all the constraints just mentioned, is to create a corporate "sustainability" initiative that is mostly public-relations hype, and to make desperate plans for worst-case scenarios (Build more prisons! Expand the military!). None of these measures can change the basic fact that industry runs on oil, and oil is going away.
Now, assuming that the folks in charge really don't know what they're doing, does this spell catastrophe for everyone? Not necessarily. There is probably no way to avoid economic turmoil and wrenching social dislocations over the next few decades. However, an argument can be made that the collapse of the current predatory, exploitive system will be a good thing in the long run, in that it could open the way for other possibilities. As Tainter notes, collapse means simply a reversion to a less-complex level of social organization. Despite the likelihood of short-term chaos, that could be a chance for humanity to internalize and implement a new environmental ethic. The way could be opened for the survival of currently embattled indigenous cultures, and people in industrialized countries would be forced to return to local self-reliance and community solidarity. Organic agriculture would be the only kind of agriculture possible. Look to Cuba for some hint of how we might get along quite well in a post-petroleum, post-globalization world. That's the third alternative.
There's no point wasting many words on the fourth. If everyone is on the raft and the raft goes down, only strong swimmers will even have a chance. It's not difficult to spin out scenarios in which there would simply be no survivors.

My message - that the folks in charge don't know what they're doing - doesn't work to the advantage of any political group: environmentalists, conservatives, and liberals all need to assume the continued existence of their playing field. They are all associated with organizations, and high-level operatives in those organizations have motives that are similar to those of our hypothetical Boeing CEO. They want to project the status quo into the future, since any fundamental discontinuity would be bad for fund-raising and career security.
Sure: in order to build a constituency behind any plan of action one needs to be able to tell people some bad news (the world is going to hell); but that must immediately be followed by good news (however, our group is working to improve things, and, if you do what we say, the world won't go to hell after all!). The formula of the presentation is basically the same whether the presenters happen to be communists, Islamic fundamentalists, or Christian Republicans.
The fact is, I'm not at all sure there is anything we can do, institutionally, to salvage society at anything like its current level of complexity (though some courses of action would clearly be better than others; for example, diverting the Pentagon budget to renewable energy research would be much better than preparing for an oil war in the Middle East - but how likely is such a diversion?). So, if there's no institutionally "acceptable" solution, why even bother discussing the problem? Because, as far as I can tell, this is the truth, even if it happens to be a truth that almost no one dares discuss. I have the luxury of exploring it here in MuseLetter because this happens to be a publication with no advertisers, supported only by subscribers.
I don't know how, or when, or how quickly collapse will occur. I've suggested the equivalent of "any second now" or "in a couple of minutes" too many times. Moreover, I don't want to be proven right about any of this. I genuinely hope there is some way out that we haven't seen yet. But I personally need to base my hopes on something more than a belief in a mystical power that works to keep rafts afloat.
This is the part of the essay in which I would naturally expect to address the question, "So what?" That's difficult to do in this instance. Obviously, if the folks in charge don't know what they're doing, we should be shoring up whatever part of the raft we happen to be on, practising our swimming strokes, and figuring out how to navigate back to shore. But I have to admit that I don't happen to be a particularly good swimmer or raft builder. All I can say is, it appears to me that this is the situation we're in.
To those who say that this is just too pessimistic an outlook to tolerate, I say: forget it, then. Enjoy yourself. Have some barbecue! Life is a gift to be cherished, after all, and I have no interest in making people unnecessarily depressed. To me, optimism is a state of being that is not necessarily based on a rational forecast of events (and, believe it or not, I tend to be a fairly optimistic person).
What kind of response from readers do I hope for? I don't know. I'm letting you know how I think and feel (and, over the months and years, I've shared a fair amount of evidence that leads me to these views). What do you think?

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