Monday, September 20, 2010

A vision of the future : In the Mothers' Land

Feminist science-fiction, like all militant literature can be godawfully bad; it can also, occasionally, turn out surprisingly well and reach beyond its original intent, asking all sorts of hard questions about our society and our future. Elisabeth Vonarburg's In the Mothers' Land is one such work. I must avow, to my great shame, that when it first came out in France, I hesitated to buy it because the summary presented it as a book about gender relations. Gender issues are indeed important in Vonarburg's work, but what made me read on beyond the first chapters is the setting. In fact, the world of In the Mother's Land is one of the few credible descriptions of what a realistic ecotechnic society could look like, and this description does ask hard questions about our future and our vision of it.

The world of In the Mother's Land is ours, several centuries down the line. After the collapse of our society, for reasons never clearly stated, surviving elites have retreated into high-tech refuge cities where they have slowly gone extinct while the outside fell into chaos – those events are described in Vonarburg's debut novel The Silent City. This chaotic situation did not last, however, and a new society has built itself upon the ruins of the old one.

Due to global warming large areas have been lost to the sea, and most of Europe is now a poisoned wasteland – the Mauterres. A genetic mutation causes women to be 70 times more numerous than men – a literary device also used by Ursula Le Guin in a somewhat weaker short story, The Matter of Seggri.

The warlord states and survivalist communities which formed the background of The Silent City have coalesced into ferociously patriarchal kingdoms: the Harems. Run by a tiny all-male elite lording over an enslaved female majority, they finally fall to a revolutionary wave triggered by the coming of a messiah-like figure – Garde – but led by a covert revolutionary movement dating back to the failed revolt described in The Silent City.

Like most revolutions, this one did not exactly bring peace and freedom. While the deposed kings fled north to their stronghold of Wardenberg, the victorious revolutionaries turned their kingdoms into queendoms, every bit as tyrannical and warlike as their predecessors: the Hives. Yet it is from these hives that the world of In the Mother's Land evolved after another revolution, relatively peaceful this time.

The world in which Vonarburg's heroine Lisbeï is born is hardly an utopia, but it is a working society. It is a loose confederation of provinces, themselves loose confederations of autonomous city-states: the Capteries. Those relatively small communities are ruled by hereditary captes who represent them at the provincial assemblies. They share a common history and culture but are diverse in language and ideology, ranging from hardline fundamentalists – the Judites – to progressives.

The Mother's Land is beset by problems caused by resource scarcity and gender imbalance. Most children die young from a mysterious genetic disease. Research and recuperation of scrap metal and devices left over by our civilization is a major industry, and indeed the heroine's job. Yet The Mother's Land's knowledge of its own past is extremely limited. All that remains of our time, aside from a few miraculously recovered texts and artifact, are heavily distorted fairy tales – including Ys – and barely recognizable cultural items. In fact, The Mother's Land barely cares about what is for it a distant and irrelevant past; and of Lisbeï’s discoveries, the one which causes the most turmoil is about the much more recent and more important fall of the harems.

The real ecotechnic societies which will emerge out of the ruins of our time will, of course, bear little resemblance with the carefully crafted Mother's Land, but this does not mean that it has nothing to teach us.

Its first lesson is that real ecotechnic societies will be very different from our societies. They may not share our hopes and values. They may even consider them abhorrent or, even worse, irrelevant. They will be, of course, our children, and their societies will have been shaped by the decisions we make now; but those decisions, and the spirit in which they will have been made will have long forgotten. It is not only somewhat vain to try to impose our ideologies upon a distant future, it is futile.

When we make a choice about what we want to preserve and transmit – or not transmit – we must remember our descendants may have a very different agenda. We all know that a large part of Greco-Roman culture was lost during the Dark Ages, but what we often fail to realize was that this loss was in fact a choice. Faced with very limited resources, early medieval monks chose to preserve Justin Martyr's apologies rather than Claudius' Etruscan grammar. We may disagree with this choice – I certainly do – but we can rest assured that our descendants will make similar ones.

The second lesson is that future societies will be as fluid as ours. We often see traditional societies as immobile, set in their ways, and without a history. The truth is that they often claim to be so, because they draw their legitimacy from tradition. That is what led Saxon kings to engineer convoluted genealogies going up to Woden Himself, or Chinese historian to grant imperial legitimacy to the most unlikely claimants so that subsequent dynasties might have somebody from whom to be bequeathed the Mandate of Heaven.

Real societies do change and the same way Vonarburg's Harems became Hives, then Capteries, which, in turn will undergo a number of change over the course of the novel, so future societies will continuously evolve new languages, philosophies and religions. Even after the tragedy of collapse is played out and something of a stable way of life is achieved again, countries and people will continue to compete for scarce resource and civilizations will develop new ways of inventing themselves until mankind itself fades out and goes extinct. That means that there is no point in trying to bring out any kind of heaven on Earth, not only because such an endeavor generally results in a very convincing hell, but also because societies never stay put and even a successful utopia is bound to eventually evolve into something else.

There is no timeless Republic, no Kingdom of Heaven, and all our efforts to bring them about are pointless. What we must promote, preserve and transmit is not some kind of social organization but concepts and values: the equal dignity of all men, rule of law and government by consent. We must do so aware that their 21st century embodiments are every bit as transient as the Athenian democracy or the old Icelandic Althing. The Mother's Land is very far away from what we would consider a democracy and it definitely has its share of injustices, yet it is based upon the same principles as our modern liberal societies. Our job, now, as the night falls, is to make it, if not certain, at least likely that this will be as true of the real future ecotechnic societies.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A vision of the future: Simon du Fleuve

Claude Auclair is, I presume, quite unknown outside of the French speaking world; and even there, he is mostly remembered for his reinterpretation of the legend of Ys in Bran Ruz. Those who spent most of their youth in public libraries, as I did, will remember fondly his other masterwork: Simon du Fleuve (Simon of the River in English). Simon du Fleuve is a realistic comic book series in the Franco-Belgian tradition depicting a rather classic, if somewhat idealistic, post-apocalyptic world. It is not without its flaws, but it explores better than others some aspects of the more advanced stages of the coming energy descent.

Simon du Fleuve takes place several decades after the collapse of our society. The reasons for this collapse are not altogether clear, but it seems that peak oil was involved. Anyway, at some point the crisis became so severe that a world state was created. It quickly fractured, however, into a host of military factions based in the main cities. As a result, the world Simon – the main character – lives in is divided into two very distinct parts. The Masters of the Cities, who still have access to technology, hold a few urban centers which they rule with an iron fist, while in the countryside reconstituted tribes live in harmony with nature, or rather would do so but for the occasional raid from the cities or the violent gangs which roam their outskirts.

Of course this setting is Manichean to the point of caricature. We never know, for instance, who leads the Masters of the Cities and what their projects are. They are basically a blind, faceless force of nature, whose only function is to plunder and destroy. The tribes, on the other hand, whether they live off farming, herding or craftsmanship, are peaceful, egalitarian, and relatively prosperous. They never wage war on each other, never compete for land and never oppress their members. There are violent, armed groups, but they belong, like the military factions, to the world of the cities. Like them, they belong to the old order and like them will ultimately succumb to their own violence. This certainly weakens the series as a work of art or a story – nobody likes to be preached at – it, however, tells a lot about our own ideological bias.

The opposition between tyrannical, decadent and ultimately doomed cities and the virtuous countryside is an ancient one. It appears in the Bible with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, probably a memory of the time when the ancestors of the Hebrew herded their sheep in the shadow of the powerful late Bronze Age city-states. In its modern form, however, it dates back from the French Revolution. Before 1789 the city-dwelling aristocracy despised uncouth peasants while somewhat fearing them. Peasants were the revolutionary class then, or at least was thought to be. Their refusal of the old feudal order had fueled the large revolts which had regularly shaken Western Europe from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the modern age.

The French revolution changed that. It was a very urban affair, led by a new aristocracy of lawyers and traders. The Jacobin government put feudal taxes and duties into the compost bin of history, while proceeding to destroy local institutions the peasantry relied upon for representation. It no longer had anything to gain from another revolution, and the horrors of Jacobin rule were still fresh in its memory. As a result, it became the conservative class, in which the very aristocracy which so much despised it before placed all its hope of ever regaining its former preeminence. All those who, for one reason or another, fought the French Enlightenment developed a mysticism of the countryside, peasants being described as the true people, virtuous, pious and true to their national tradition in opposition to the cosmopolitan and decadent urban crowds. This vision is pervasive, not only in the bitter rantings of the far right writers who gave fascism its intellectual foundation, but also in the works of the Romantics who were so influential in saving the marginalized cultures of Western Europe.

As often happens, this theme shifted from the right to the left during the late sixties, under the influence of both Maoism and Political Ecology – quite a newcomer in French radical politics, by the way. As in America, communes were set up by enthusiastic young people from the cities, and as in America most of them failed. A few localized successes, such as the successful opposition to the building of a military base on the Larzac Plateau helped to create links between the activist and peasant worlds.

Of course, this “back to the land” ideology has little to do with the reality of agrarian societies. Subsistence agriculture is a back-breaking job and the communities based upon it are often oppressive, united by a set of traditions one disregards only at one's own peril. They are not even particularly virtuous. Prostitution was a thriving business during the European Middle Ages and single mothers were not particularly uncommon in rural Brittany, especially at the bottom of the social ladder. Class relationships were often brutal, especially between land owners and landless hand-to-mouth workers.

Hardly the egalitarian utopia described by Simon du Fleuve.

It is true that in the final years of some civilizations, rural areas were politically separated from cities, but this was only temporary and due to the inability of some “barbarian invaders” to storm walled towns. Thus in some outlying parts of the Western Roman Empire, isolated urban centers held out, for a time, while the countryside was overrun by Germanic tribes. Interestingly, this happened mostly in areas where Roman culture did not survive. Having no access to cities, the invaders built their own tribal orders outside their walls. When finally both societies merged, it was on the tribesmen’s cultural terms. The same way, when the Nubian kingdom of Makuria, once a major African power, fell during the closing years of the 14th century, its king’s power barely extended beyond the walls of their capital Dongola, while the rest of the country was under the control of desert tribes.

This was, however, the result of a very particular kind of collapse, one where invading tribal groups play a major role. It won't be our fate. Except maybe in some remote parts of Sudan, there are no longer any powerful warrior tribes around, and those that remain, in Amazonia or in Papua New Guinea, are likely to be early causalities. What threatens us and might lead us to a much darker version of Simon du Fleuve's world is more insidious.

As the resources available shrink, our societies will tend to reserve them to what they consider “vital functions”, very much as a human body plunged into icy water will focus its remaining resources on keeping the vital organs warm, even if this means losing a toe... or a limb. In real life this will mean, and already means in some areas, the quiet abandonment of marginal regions. Roads fall into disrepair; railroad lines are closed; vital public services such as schools or post offices are withdrawn; courts are rationalized away to big urban centers; law enforcement withers due to budget cuts; and welfare, vital to the more marginal population, erodes away.

Slowly the administrative networks which held the national territory together fall apart.

The modern state basically exchanges services such as law and order, defense or welfare against the taxes and the legitimacy it needs to function. When it fails to provide those services or restricts them to an ever smaller minority, it becomes parasitic and no matter how much ideology it feeds its subjects, it will sooner or latter lose its legitimacy. Thus in 378 CE, when Athanaric's Visigoths ran amok in the Balkans (they were not invaders, by the way, but refugees), they were joined by local miners. Those were not barbarian sympathizers, they were just overtaxed by a government which did not really protect them. It was, by the way, for the same reason that so many people became monks or hermits in that time: there were no tax collectors in the desert.

Over time the state will become a foreigner, then an enemy, in the areas it has abandoned and other power centers will grow in the cracks. They certainly won't outgun the state, not until the process of decline is fairly advanced, but by putting themselves in the center of local networks of solidarity and survival they may take over its role in everyday life. In the western world this will happen mostly in urban ghettos, but as the states loses its ability to administrate its territory it will happen in the countryside as well. The result will be that some rural areas will be basically left to their own devices and their impoverished populations forced to self-organize to survive.

If nobody takes over the way the Germanic tribes did during the fifth century, we will end up with something relatively close to Chad or a Taliban-less Afghanistan. The central government will still control cities and economically important areas. It will still be able to project its force anywhere in its territory, but the countryside will be an administrative desert. This, of course, will be a temporary phenomenon. The “focus on the center” strategy works only during a transient crisis. Should the problem prove permanent – and we know it will – the state will slowly shrink away, not a necessarily peaceful process by the way. Elites, whether they be local or global, old or new, will fight to keep their status and as their resource basis dwindles, this fight will become increasingly savage and desperate.

Simon du Fleuve may therefore not be wrong in imagining military regimes entrenched in decaying cities preying on the countryside. Where Auclair is wrong is when he pictures a countryside essentially free from this phenomenon. There are no reasons why even neglected areas could not develop elites of their own, and no reason why those elites should be less oppressive than the city-based ones. Those elites may grow out of local administrators, wealthy landowners or gang leaders, but also former freedom fighters turned warlords or even sustainability activists taking over out of necessity, then growing into the role. No matter their origin, the circumstances and the necessities of post-peak life will push them along the same way followed by the originally relatively democratic, Anglo-Saxon local leaders after the collapse of Roman Britain.

Our problem is to build resilient local institutions, so that they can remain democratic even as the state apparatus erodes away. This is not an easy task, and in many places we will fail, but picturing the countryside as a place of redemption, a kingdom of virtue, opposed to morally bankrupt cities, certainly won't help.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A vision of the future : The Knights of God

Hardly anybody today remembers The Knights of God. It was a children’s series produced by a now defunct British regional television channel in 1985. It was aired once, not so unfairly panned by critics, and quickly forgotten. It had a somewhat longer career in France where public television bought it and aired it at least twice, under the title Les Epées de Feu, before putting it in cold storage. Since nobody ever bothered to release it on DVD, it is now only available on peer-to-peer networks. Yet, despite its flaws, this piece of nearly lost lore tells us more about what post-peak politics could be than most doomer porn produced since.

The plot was quite complex, but its premises are quite simple. At some point in what was then the future, Britain had fallen into civil war, apparently due to some conflict between the South and the North. It seemed to have been a brutal, messy affair, and the winner had been the Knights of God, a military religious order headed by Prior Mordrin. The royal family had been slaughtered save for one baby miraculously sheltered away and brought up in secret in Wales. As the show begins, Mordrin , who rules from Winchester, has just brought back under his control the north of England. Wild bands of partisans are roaming the countryside, London is in ruins, and for some reason Canterbury is an independent enclave under its Archbishop.

Of course, at the end the long-lost heir to the throne is recognized, leads a general insurrection, and marries his girlfriend (and yes, he was big-eared and she was blond – it was the eighties, remember). Mordrin is defeated and killed, and the Kingdom is reunited behind its rightful king. The Arthurian overtones are obvious, as is the British nationalist subtext – it was the time of the first rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism – and the show probably deserves a remake à la Battlestar Galactica, but that's beside the point.

The Knights of God are what John Michael Greer would call a revitalization movement; a particularly nasty one, I must say, as its sources of inspiration seem to have been the SS and the historical Teutonic Knights, and the problems it faces are those that such a movement would face post-peak, should it come into power.

Prior Mordrin's Anglia is very short of resources. Machines stand idle and crucial missions are canceled for lack of fuel. More important, even though the Order is able to rule the country, it cannot really control it. Time after time we see the heroes wander through ghost towns or partisan-ridden wildernesses; and despite the ever looming presence of Prior Mordrin's black helicopters, we feel that whole parts of the country escape his – or anybody else's for that matter – authority.

As the Soviets learned the hard way, controlling a society is costly, and controlling it totally is very costly. Historically, states and empires have managed the territory they controlled either directly, by setting up an administration and paying for civil servants; or indirectly, through local leaders. The first solution is the most efficient, of course. Civil servants have no independent power base, can be removed at will, and are unlikely to side with the locals should they become restive. The problems are that civil servants have to be paid for, and that even in a low-tech civilization you need a lot of them.

Local leaders are of course less costly, since they run things for you using their own resources. They are, however, less efficient, for a significant part of local resources go their way rather than yours – sometimes you may even have to subsidize them. Besides, they have an independent power base, which they can use against you. Most of the time they don't use it, both because they know you are stronger than they are and because they may need your protection to stay in office. Some of them may miscalculate, however, and force you to crush them militarily – always a costly operation.

More important, a few may rightly assess your real strength and act accordingly. That was what the King of Afghanistan did in 1919. Afghanistan was essentially a client state of the British Empire, with a crappy army; yet, feeling that Britain was somewhat war-weary and had other things to do with its lack of money than fighting a pointless war with rough tribesmen over a worthless piece of land, the King decided to invade British India. The British army duly repulsed him and bombed his cities. It was not a walkover, however, and as London indeed had other things to do with its lack of money than fighting a pointless war with rough tribesmen over a worthless piece of land, it did not follow suit. The Raj just told the King to please keep his army at home, and, by the way, he was now free to conduct his own foreign affairs, which was essentially what said King wanted.

The historical solution was usually to mix both systems by integrating local leaders into an imperial elite system, so that they somewhat lose their independent power base while still remaining useful.

There is, however, another option: a situation where the power base of local leaders has been destroyed by centralization, but where the central power no longer has the means to effectively run the country. That is what happens to the Knights of God. Their tanks, helicopters and armored cars can go whenever they want, but when they go away, so does the Knights' authority.

That is what will happen to any successful revitalization movement. You may be able to rally the people around a common goal and win a civil war with night marches and inflamed speeches, but you won't create the resources you need out of thin air. No matter which weird ideology seizes power in the aftermath of peak energy, it will still be faced with the same problem our democracies face: how we can run a complex society, and therefore pay for a complex administration, with a declining resource base.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Besides, the glut of energy and the essentially free resources our societies have exploited for two centuries have enabled them to create overly complex administrative systems – both private and public – which have utterly destroyed community leadership. It does not matter whether the Regional Council of Brittany or the City of Nantes have (or have not) such or such power, or have (or have not) such or such a degree of control over their resources; they are a part of an integrated state administrative system, and if it begins to lose control so will they.

A successful revitalization movement is likely even to worsen things, as the Party, the Movement or whatever it will be called will be highly unlikely to tolerate independent power centers – even if said party or movement is theoretically committed to relocalization. As it becomes more and more obvious that no amount of symbolic gestures is going to compensate for the continuous decline in net energy, the ideological glue which may, for a time, keep the society together will dissolve and whole parts of the society will slip out of control.

In the series, the Return of the King – a powerful symbolic act – does fix things, but only because there is still a prosperous outside world from which to draw resources. No such thing will be available to whoever will ultimately overthrow a successful revitalization movement, so the symbolic act of rallying the people – or a part of the people – around a common goal will meet only with transient success. This downward cycle will be broken only after truly sustainable political authorities have grown out of the chaos, probably at a very low level of social complexity. The Greek word for King meant originally village chieftain, because that was the only authority left after the collapse of the Mycenaean world. The same thing might happen to us after the inevitable fall of the future equivalents of the Knights of God, when the only vaguely legitimate authority left will be the mayor... or the now hereditary local policeman.

That is why it is so essential to build legitimacy at the local and regional level, and by that I mean legitimacy independent of the state apparatus and able to resist it. I am well aware that regionalism or local nationalism is itself a revitalization movement, and that it can become quite nasty at times; but it has the advantage of tying political legitimacy to the land and to the local culture. This may turn local institutions into rallying points when it comes time to fight off the local incarnation of Prior Mordrin; but, more important, it will make them more resilient to the inevitable global simplification that will come with the end of the age of cheap energy.

At the end of the series, rebels seize Caernarfon castle and raise the Red Dragon Flag on it – maybe they should have kept it there.

I want to thank David Parkinson, who has copy-edited this post and corrected my rather clumsy English. Without his efforts, it would have been far less readable.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Vision of the future : Dune

Science-fiction tells us more about the dreams, hopes, and fears of a age than about any actual form the future could take. It may, however, sometimes offer us a glimpse through a glass, darkly, of how this future might come to be. That is why Kunstler's The World Made by Hand and Greer’s Star's Reach are so interesting to read. They are not the only novels on this subject, however. Other science-fiction classics, not necessarily of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, may help us to grasp what the fundamentals of a post-peak society could be. Frank Herbert's Dune is one of those.

Even though spice is definitely a metaphor for oil and Arrakis definitely a metaphor for Arabia, the Dune universe has little to do with what a post-peak world is likely to look like. It has a Galactic Empire, spaceships, and an advanced, if somewhat vintage, technology – the book was written in 1965 after all. Yet, when you look beyond the Ixian machines and the Bene Gesserit's breeding program, the logic of the Dune society is not unlike what you could expect from a severely resource-constrained society.

We all know about the noble Atreides and the dastardly scheming Harkonnen, but few realize that, despite their differences, both were feudal overlords ruling over a host of local nobles and a far greater number of commoners, including in some places slaves. This is a remarkably common system in history, and even though most of us, myself included, would not like to live in it, it is a logical response to resource scarcity. Fossil fuels have enabled us, for two centuries, to create a huge economical surplus, which in turn has enabled us to bridge somewhat the gap between poor and rich people, at least in the developed countries.

This bridge is very partial, that's true, and it is slowly falling apart, but it does exist. Many people, at least in the de-growth scene, have pointed out that the average French worker has access to luxuries a medieval duke could not even dream of. Few have noted, however, that he has access to roughly the same kind of goods as the rich, the main differences being quality . I am far from being rich, but I do have a computer and a heated house. I can dine in a restaurant and travel by plane. What I lack is access to those goods and services specifically designed to be expensive; i.e., to act as a class-barrier.

Widespread access to luxury goods and services is only possible, however, because our economic system still creates enough surplus to distribute some of it among even the non-elite. During pre-industrial times, the difference between the haves and the have-nots was not one of degree but one of kind. A medieval peasant could not even dream of owning a stone house, for instance. Because the economy produced little surplus, it could support few rich people, and those few could accumulate riches only by reducing the rest of the population to permanent poverty, sometimes barely above survival level. The result was a considerable distance between the wealthy and the rest of the population, comparable not to the difference between a modern-day French worker and a millionaire, but to the one between the same French worker and a Malian subsistence farmer.

Access to technology was, however, rather evenly distributed. Things would be quite different in a high- or even not so high-technology ressource-poor world. The Atreides and the Harkonnen have access to what we would call high-technology (spaceships, powered vehicles and so on), but the universe of their subjects is definitely low-tech, and so is the economy. Caladan's main resource is paddy rice, and the Harkonnen rose to House Major status thanks to their manipulation of the whale fur market.

A resource-poor world could indeed enjoy a relatively high level of technology, even if there is no historical precedent. What it cannot do is mass-produce it. A car or even a computer could theoretically be built by a resource-constrained society with the necessary know-how. What such a society could not support, let alone build, is the necessary industrial infrastructure. The consequence is that those high-tech objects which could still be made in such a context will have to be hand-crafted in very much the same way that books, for instance, were produced in pre-industrial times. Their price would therefore be prohibitive. Surviving complex technologies would then be reserved to the elite, whatever this elite may be.

This may, ironically, encourage the survival or the resurrection of some technologies. During the long descent, society’s focus will be survival, and at some point research and even technology maintenance will cease to be priorities. Unless things become far worse than they need to be, the dark ages will pass and new elites will emerge from the ruins – if history is any guide, they will descend from successful warlords; even if they may have another origins, such as religion. Like all elites, they will want to display their status, and what better way to do it than by using prohibitively expensive technologies from the legendary time of computers and moon rockets. The resulting society could be more polarized than anything in history. After all, Louis XIV might have had chests of gold and tens of thousands of soldiers at his disposal, but he still had to rely on herbs when he was sick. His twenty-fourth-century counterparts may have competent doctors and antibiotics. It is their subjects who will have to be content with herbs.

Such technology would be rather static, however, and there too the Dune universe offers us a good idea of what a post-peak society could look like. Research is a very resource-intensive activity, and it relies upon a network of equally very resource-intensive educational institutions. Both are subject to the law of diminishing returns. While a resource-poor society may do some research, it will have to be limited and very focused; as a result, its technology will look quite stagnant, with very few breakthroughs and those shall be very far between, and a lot of mature technologies used without much change for thousands of years. Technological innovations may still be game-changers in the realm of the economy or geopolitics – the synthetic spice, for instance – but they won't change the way ordinary people live, at least not the way the runaway technological progress of the last two centuries has done. That does not mean that ordinary people won't experience significant, even drastic, changes in their lives – wars, political and religious crises, and natural disasters will still be very much on the agenda – but we won't see anything like the rift between our grandparents' world and ours. In a way, it will be a return to the atemporal peasant world before the Industrial Revolution, a world subject to change but not to progress, where continuity is valued more than innovation.

Most peak oil activists would hate such a society, of course, even though some, of the conspiracy theorist kind, might see in my description of it a confirmation of their fears. They would be wrong, by the way. If a Dune-like society does emerge from the long descent, it will be after the demise of our world and of its elite. They are much too closely linked to mass production, to globalization, and to the monetary economy to thrive or even survive in a world where those will be mere memories. They will go the way of Mayan priests and Roman aristocrats. The post-peak aristocrats will be of another stock – they may even be the descendants of successful activists (there are, after all, historical precedents) – and their formation years will be long and troubled.

As I have said, I would greatly dislike living in such a society, but that does not change the fact that its emergence, or the emergence or something quite similar in its functioning if not in its external outlook, is a possible – even likely – consequence of the collapse of a technological society. That does not mean, of course, that we cannot prevent it from emerging. We cannot do anything about the limits to growth, and certainly cannot avert the coming collapse, but we are fully responsible for the way we react to it. Promoting personal and collective accountability and extending democracy, especially at the community level where the consequences of one's choices can be fully felt, might erect subtle but very effective barriers to the rise of “feudalism with hand-crafted tanks”. That means, however, tremendous effort both at the personal and the community level, and it is not certain that every individual and, more important, every community will be willing to make them.

I want to thank David Parkinson, who have copy-edited this post and corrected my rather clumsy English. Without his efforts, it would have been far less readable.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Retirement and entitlement

Last tuesday I participated to a demonstration against the projected reform of the French retirement system. It was nearly mandatory for me to be seen there, on strike (but still paid, that is one of the advantages of being a politician) and holding a party banner. Yet, all moderates present felt the whole thing was an act, a mere baroud d'honneur before an unavoidable defeat. Even the very peak energy unaware Socialist Party recognizes, privately, that the current French retirement system cannot stand unchanged and anybody even vaguely peak oil aware will agree that retirement itself is going to become a thing of the past. Yet, here we were, clamoring in the street in defense of a system we knew is unsustainable. The truth was simply unspeakable even for those few who could think it. Any left-winger audacious, or stupid, enough to question this “to the last ditch” attitude, would quickly be ostracized as an ally of the right and lose whatever position he had acquired inside his organization. As absurd as it sounds, it is the reality anybody willing to bring out a constructive response to our predicament must face. The main obstacle is not some elite plot but a far more diffuse, and formidable, obstacle : this feeling of entitlement so pervasive in developed societies.

The French retirement system is a complex hodgepodge of individual retirement plans or institutions, so complex in fact that a same individual may have to deal with several of them as he reaches retirement age – this will (or rather would have been) probably be my case as I worked a few month in the private sector before becoming a civil servant. All, or nearly all, work the same way, however. Every month a significant part of your wages go to a retirement fund (in my case the CNRACL) which uses said money to pay the pensions of the retirees affiliated to it.

This system works fine as long as working people are significantly more numerous than the retirees they support, which is unfortunately less and less the case. As birth rate decreased during the seventies and high unemployment became a permanent feature of the economy (8% is an absolute minimum here), a growing number of retirees has to be supported by a stagnating or even decreasing number of workers. Moreover, those retirees began their careers during the years of rapid growth, when there still were still a lot of highly paid jobs up for the taking, so the standard of life of most of them is actually superior to the one of most of the workers supporting them.

This would not be an unsolvable problem, should the resources available to society continue to grow. We know, however, it won't be the case. Our civilization is reaching the limits pointed out by the Meadows Report thirty years ago where continued real growth is made more and more difficult due to the depletion of key resources. Add in the limits of social complexity as a problem-solving strategy pointed out by Tainter in his seminal work The Collapse of Complex Societies and it becomes obvious that there only two possible fates for the French retirement system, both equally unpleasant.

First we can choose to go the deflation way. As the economy contracts in real terms and less and less resource are available to society, unemployment will skyrocket and an increasing number of people will turn to the domestic or underground economy for survival. As a consequence, the amount of money retirement management agencies will be able to collect will decrease and it will be only a matter of time before one goes bankrupt. The most sensible solution would be to let it crash and burn, but the political cost would be staggering. What will happen instead is that the state will step in, assume the debts and impose lower benefits for higher payments. This is basically what happens today, except that the government does not seem too eager to assume any debt but its own (and even that...)

Since the available net energy is bound to decline to near pre-industrial levels, there are no reason for this process not to repeat itself again and again until the whole French retirement system is down to a purely symbolic level. Of course, by this point, something really nasty would surely have already happened, making the whole issue quite irrelevant anyway.

We could also choose the inflation way, create a lot of money to fuel a fake growth and pay our debt with it. Of course inflation will quickly rise its ugly head – not necessarily Zimbabwe level inflation, but high enough to make any rise in nominal pensions illusory. All we'll have to do then is let pensions – and wages – stagnate and inflation will quickly make retirement history. That is what happened in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when pensions kept their nominal value while the ruble plummeted.

Were I to say that in the speech I am commissioned to write for the forthcoming departmental rally of the left, I would probably have to find myself another job, and certainly not because I would have uncovered some sinister elite plot to deprive workers of their birthright. The problem is that pensions have been so thoroughly cut from work that most people – including politicians – have come to consider it not as the result of one's labor but as an inalienable right.

At the beginning, pensions were supposed to be socialized wages and a number of unions and political groups still cling to this idea and repeat it like a mantra. They may have been perceived as such during the early fifties, but now they are just subsidies raining down from distant bureaucracies. The result has been a contradictory feeling of helplessness and entitlement. Unless what might have happened within the local chapter of an old style fraternal order, the individual worker has no say in the pension policy. It is decided either directly by the government or by the unholy alliance of workers' and corporations' unions which manages most French retirement organisms. All citizens can do is accept or protest.

Even if the ideology of progress had not been so pervasive in our society, this disempowerment would have been sure to generate a deep sense of entitlement. Retirement is no longer something you work for but something you wait for and, as always, when your expectations are not met, the result is frustration and anger.

And it does not help that Frenchmen – like Americans – live in what would have seemed unimaginable luxury to a medieval baron.

Of course, it could be possible to imagine sustainable retirement solutions without reverting to pure family solidarity – which supposes you do have a family and it has the means to support you – or charity – which basically puts your survival in the hands of whatever church happens to rule the area. The Islamic zaqat system might be a way, provided it is organized at a community level and not taken over by the state or some large private organization, as it is too often the case in the Islamic world. The fraternal orders of the English and American nineteenth century might be another. Neither fits very well within the framework of today's French – or American for that matter – society and both would be stiffly resisted by Unions and political parties alike, as would be the suggestion that there are ideas to be found among the Amish, the Hutterites or the other groups born from the radical Reformation.

The necessary shift from bureaucracy and entitlement toward community empowerment, local resilience and personal responsibility will have to grow locally, through our own efforts, and that may mean accepting the hardships which come with it. That is exactly what most people – and the political elite represents them well in that matter – don't want to hear. That is exactly why they will cling to unsustainable structures until they collapse... while we'll grow alternatives in the cracks

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Barbarian invasions

World media did not talk about it, but France was recently shaken by another polemic about the Islamic veil. A woman was caught driving while wearing a veil almost completely hiding her face and fined – rightly so, in my opinion – for dangerous driving. The government, who had just lost the regional elections by the largest margin ever, escalated, threatened to revoke the woman's husband's citizenship because because he had several wives, then, discovering it was not legally possible announced it would vote a law to make it so, retroactively. The whole thing degenerated into political bickering out of which, we can be pretty sure, nothing will come out. This polemic may sound quite absurd, especially in a time when most governments in Europe are struggling to avoid bankruptcy. In many way it is. It highlights, however, an important aspect of the energy descent : migration, culture shift, and the reaction of locals to both.

Many authors have predicted the energy descent will result in mass migrations, leading to large scale population replacement. John Michael Greer has thus stated he considered an Arab conquest of Europe a distinct possibility, and his e-novel Star' Reach describes the Old World as the place “where the Arabs live now”. There is certainly an American bias here. America experienced a large scale population replacement in the last three centuries, with natives being progressively swamped out by immigrants from the other side of the sea. This hasn't happened in Europe for five millenniums.

Of course, there have been a lot of invasions and culture shifts, but the population has remained the same as it was during the neolithic. In the area I live, people first spoke some kind of pre-indoeuropean language, then shifted to Celtic, then to Latin, then to another brand of Celtic, then to a romance local dialect, then to standard French. They will probably shift to something else at some point of the future. Most of them, however, directly descend from the mesolithic hunter-gatherers who claimed this land after the end of the last ice age.

The invasions which marked the end of the Western Roman Empire have had a surprisingly small impact. Germanic warlords seized political power and set up often short-lived kingdoms but they and their men were too few in number to really influence the genetic make up of the population or do more than introduce a few specialized loanwords in their language. As a rule, immigrants, even high-status sword wielding immigrants, quickly assimilate, not because they have a moral obligation to do so but because it is the best way to advance in society. Of course, in the long run, it means forsaking the web of ethnic solidarity which helped them to survive when they first arrived, but most of the time it is a price worth paying.

There are exceptions, however. Transplanted peasant communities, settling en masse on a relatively virgin land can resist assimilation a very long time, even if they are completely surrounded by natives. This is what happened to the Arvanites of Greece or to the, now gone, German speaking populations of Russia or Romania. This has, of course, little relevance for the energy descent age.

The second exception – the English – is, however, far more interesting. Far right ideologues and anti-immigrations activists don't like to talk about it, but the English are the one example in reasonably recent history of an immigrant – not conqueror – group who managed to take over their host country. Indeed, when the Roman Empire left – or was expelled from – Britain in 410, the bulk of the population was Christian and spoke Latin or what would become Welsh, Cornish or Breton. Two centuries later Latin was gone as a spoken language, Celtic tongues and Christianity were restricted to the western highlands while the remainder of the country was held by pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a rather unusual fate, one must say, for a former Roman land.

The traditional interpretation of this rather troublesome turn of event, based upon the contemporary but biased account of Gildas, holds that the soft and decadent Britons were obliged to hire Saxon mercenaries to defend themselves. Those mercenaries revolted, slaughtered the natives and seized their lands. This is a very compelling story, one which fits very well the apocalyptic mindset so common in some sections of the Peak Oil movement. The only problem is that it doesn't fit the facts.

To begin with, many early “Anglo-Saxon” rulers wore unmistakably Celtic names. Most of the battles they fought took place, not on the shores, as would have been expected but on the old tribal borders. It was on these very same tribal borders or around major cities that their earliest settlement were first located. Moreover both British and old English borrowed very little from each other which suggests they had, at least at first, a reasonably equivalent status. Sub-Roman Britons doesn't not seem to have been weak and decadent either : the picture modern archeology reveals is one of powerful tribal militias, fortified hilltops and hundreds of kilometers long defense dikes.

This has led a new generation of searchers, such as Stuart Laycock, to suggest another scenario : after the Romans left, the old British tribes recovered their freedom and fought among themselves. Following late Roman practice they imported Germanic mercenaries they settled in strategic locations, not necessarily because they lacked trained manpower, but because hired swords, not being embroiled in local politics are generally more reliable in the short term.

The end result was that the culture and language of the newcomers prevailed, albeit not necessarily their dynasties. After all, the kings of Wessex, who ultimately unified England had an obvious, even if not very much publicized, Celtic ancestry.

What is particularly interesting for the fate of our own society during the energy descent is that the immigrants, despite being relatively few in numbers, assimilated the natives rather than the other way around. Outright military conquest certainly played a role in this process but certainly not everywhere and certainly not in the West Country. My own guess is that mercenaries Germanic war bands were more open that the British aristocracy. Ambitious but low status youths, such as perhaps Cerdic of Wessex, had therefore every reason to join them, learn their language and worship their gods – after all, if Paris has been worth a mass, Venta Belgarum and Old Sarum may very well have been worth a sacrifice to Woden.

The result was that when rubble stopped bouncing and warlordships coalesced into reasonably sized kingdoms, the ruling elite of what had been the core of Roman Britain had become pagan and Anglo-Saxon speaking, even though a significant part of it was probably of British ancestry.

Could such a thing happen in today's Europe ? If present conditions continue to prevail, certainly not. There is absolutely no way an immigrant culture, associated with poverty and marginality can win over the elite or even the middle class. In fact, immigrants have every incentive to abandon it, with the possible exception of religion, provided it is practiced the European way, that is privately.

Peak energy makes things more complex, however. As the net energy available to society decreases, so will its capacity to support complex hierarchies. We can count on the ruling elites to pressure everyone and his dog to stay at the top, but ultimately they will fall. In the meantime, however, it will be the lower and middle classes which will be hit the hardest. What that means for immigrants is that they will no longer be able, except for a few lucky individuals, to advance in society and will be permanently locked in underclass status. They will then have no reason to abandon the very real advantages of community solidarity for a more and more empty promise of integration.

Impoverished natives may and will then join immigrant culture – or rather what it will have become since it will quickly grow quite different of what it was at home – for protection and some form of advancement. This process is clearly at work in French society, even if it is marginal – racism and scapegoating is still the most common reaction.

As the crisis deepens and the middle class slips into permanent poverty, we may have a rather interesting “culture war” between whatever emerges from urban ghettos and a racism which in France may put on the mask of secularism – those who read French and will have look at this supposedly left wing blog will understand what I mean.

At some point in the process of decline, this is bound to generate a deep fracture in European societies, fracture which may take a territorial form, as it did in Britain, with an immigrant-based cultures prevailing in some areas and more native ones holding on in some others. Islamic polities may very well emerge in some French regions and large parts of Germany may very well become Turkish-speaking after the ultimate collapse of today's European states and of the elites which draw their power from them.

This is not necessarily a bad outcome. These futures societies and polities can become as rich and cultured as England did despite its rather troubled origin. The problem is that this process, probably inevitable at this point, will meet with a lot of resistance from natives, and more specifically from those authorities who will draw their legitimacy from today's polities. Racism and ethnic cleansing are bound to show their ugly head and make the unraveling of our civilization far messier and bloodier than it needs to be.

Ironically, it is the very refusal of the native majority to make place to immigrants and to integrate a part of their culture into their own which make this outcome all the more likely. This means, of course that ethnic regions – the Celtic Fringe for instance, but that is only an example – may be less vulnerable. Whatever polity emerge from them will likely draw its legitimacy from a supposed – even if often more fantasized than real – resistance to the state it is a part today. This may enable them to integrate large section of immigrant culture, as a part of a necessary culture change, without endangering themselves. An emirate of Britanny may exist in the future and, even if I'd prefer a Wiccan democracy, it would be as Breton as today's French region.

Even here, however, it is far from a forgone conclusion. In an atmosphere of nationalist ranting and stigmatization, it seems that the likes of Gildas will have a field day, paving the way for those of Cerdic and Creoda.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cultural hegemony

2010 might very well be seen in retrospect as the year when Peak Oil has become, if not exactly mainstream, at least something of a subject for the power that be. There has been, of course, the Joint Operating Environment for 2010 report, highlighting the risk of a major oil shortage for 2010, the paper in The Guardian referring to it and to the French blog which put the whole thing into light. More important perhaps six major British companies, among which Virgin, have created a special task force to study the effect of the impending decline of oil production upon the economy of the United Kingdom. Yet very little of it transpired into mainstream press and we can be quite sure, as Matthieu Auzanneau himself acknowledges, that a lot of water will run under the bridges of Paris before any kind of policy is implemented to address the problem.

And there are unfortunately very good reasons for that.

Le Monde is the French equivalent of the Times, a high status paper anyone who wants to be somebody in the political world must at least claim to read. Unlike Libération – considered left wing – and Le Figaro – right wing – it is seen as politically neutral and has a long tradition of editorial independence. It is not widely read in Brittany – people prefer local news papers – but it has a real influence upon decision makers. The problem is that Matthieu Auzanneau's paper was not published in the paper itself but in an associated blog, which does not carry the same weight, and the sad fact is that French media did not tell a a single word about the JOE report. This is, by the way, quite revealing, for the did talk about the Global Trend 2025 report. A local expert in geopolitics even authored a book about it.

When they wanted to solve a riddle tribal people – and we all have tribal ancestors – called the manes for help. In this particular case, the most appropriate one is Antonio Gramsci (January 22, 1891 – April 27, 1937). Like most left wing intellectuals of his time, Antonio Gramcsi was faced with a problem : why haven't the “inevitable” socialist revolution happened. Gramsci himself was a communist, which in the electric atmosphere of the early twenty century, when the supporters of democracy were an embattled minority among the intelligentsia, was understandable, if not totally acceptable. This does not make his views less interesting or less useful, however.

For Gramsci, the structure of society is not only defended through political or economic coercion but through an hegemonic culture in which the values of the bourgeoisie – or of any ruling class – becomes a kind of generalized “common sense”, the end result being that even those sections of the population which have a vested interest into changing the statu quo actually actively help to maintain it.

To achieve any kind of change, you must first win the ideological war, slowly undermine the hegemonic culture – what Gramsci calls a “war of position” - then, and only then, seize the initiative.

Albeit Gramsci was a communist, his ideas were used by many other factions, from the far left to the far right. The most successful ones, to date, have been the neoliberals, mostly through the Chicago School and the Mont Pelerin Society, and, more recently the neoconservatives, even if the scope of their success has been rather limited. Some elements of the far right have also tried the same strategy – the evangelicals come to mind, of course, with their “culture war” as well Alain de Benoist's neopagan New Right with its metapolitique strategy.

Even a cursory look at recent history shows that the successes of the gramcsian strategy were few and far between. The dominant ideology, born from the Enlightenment ideas, is so pervasive, has so much resources at its disposal, that any attempt to challenge the statu quo has to be formulated within its framework, lest it be relegated on the fringe of the intellectual world. There, Gramsci's position war, becomes a guerrilla war, which can sometimes degenerate in a “siege without a besieger”, to paraphrase Jean Raspail, with small sects ranting uselessly at an enemy who doesn't even bother to fight them. That is, for instance, the situation of the French royalists or of the loyalists in the Republic of Ireland.

The problem of Peak Oil is that the narrative which underlies it runs contrary to everything Enlightenment and the ideology of progress stand for. Where progress is about conquest and mastery of nature, peak oil tells us of the absolute, unmovable limits this very nature assigns to our development and prosperity. There is no way to reconcile them, and those who attempt to do it – such as the “bright green” - choose a more convenient problem to solve, global warming for instance, or end up defending such oxymoronic cause as “green growth”.

To get out of our global predicament we must recognize that an unsustainable society simply cannot be sustained and reshape it for resilience and sobriety. This massive powerdown effort cannot be even begun, except at the local level, without first undermining, then overthrowing the culture of progress which rules our civilization since the end of the XVIIIth century.

Similar ideological warfare have been won in the past, and against adversaries every bit as hegemonic as the ideology of progress. Christianity, initially, a small Jewish cult, progressively spread in the Roman underground during the heyday of the Empire before becoming its official faith and utterly replacing the once hegemonic pagan civic religions. The Reformation imposed itself in the northern half of Europe – and goaded the once all-powerful Catholic Church into extensive reforms – after more than a century of confused intellectual (or not so intellectuals in the case of the Hussites, for instance) struggles. As for the Enlightenment itself, its victory was a slow and difficult one. The late Christopher Lasch pointed out that the ideology of progress met with considerable resistance in America, from the Knights of Labor to the Southern Agrarian. As late as the early twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church condemned popular sovereignty and religious pluralism and until 1967 all priests and teachers had to take an anti-modernist oath.

It was not until after World War Two that those ideas fell into growing irrelevancy. The ultimate fate of the ideology of progress will ultimately mirror theirs, even if we still don't know which paradigm will replace it. History is full of aborted world religions and hegemonic cultures. The rise of Christianity and the Reformation witnessed the birth, and death, of not a few “heretic” sects which could have become the new norm, had things turned out otherwise – who remembers the Marcionites, for instance, or Arianism, at a time the official religion of most of Western Europe, or the original Anabaptists cults which raised such an alarm in Renaissance Germany before being stomped out by both Catholics and Protestants. Others, which could also have become hegemonic have survived by insulating themselves and becoming closed, self-sufficient, communities. The Jews or the Parsi come to mind, but the Waldenses or the Mennonites are also good examples.

Another problem is that paradigm change takes time. We tend to see major historical events as nearly instantaneous, but this is almost never the case. Founded around 60 during the fierce intellectual controversies which followed the death of Jesus – whoever he really was – Christianity became legal in the Empire only in 311 and it took nearly seventy more years to become its sole official religion. The Reformation took even longer, when you consider it as an historical phenomenon rather than as a series of events. The first group to break with Rome on terms reasonably close to what we call “Reformation” - the Waldenses - did so around 1177, as for the first precursor of the English Reformation, John Wycliff, founder of the Lollard, he died in 1384, nearly a century before the birth of Luther.

Of course, time is exactly what we lack presently. We might have been able to restructure our infrastructure during the crisis of the seventies had we heeded the Meadows report and we might have been able to advance on the way to a true sustainability culture. The chance we manage to do either now on a sufficiently large scale are so slim as to be non-existent. Even if peak oil and resource constraints becomes mainstream, we can be sure that the responses will be within the framework of the ideology of progress and therefore ineffective. This does not mean, however, that our action will be so, only that we should not expect too much of it. As Richard Heinberg insightfully stated, our job is not to prevent the collapse from happening for it is now impossible. It is to prepare for the future and make sure that enough people adopt a sustainable vision of the world while preserving what is worth preserving of the heritage of the last two centuries, so that whatever emerges from the ruins is both viable and humane