Thursday, February 25, 2010

The return of war

Every so often a book or an article shows up in the peak oil or sustainability community claiming that if only we could be nicer toward each other all our problems would be solved. The last in date is Building Cultures of Peace by Riane Eisler. Riane Eisler is doubtlessly a very nice person, and, as a citizen of a city razed during World War II, I share her detestation of war, inequity and tyranny. It remains that her approach is typical of a mode of thinking which has consistently failed for more than three centuries and will almost certainly catastrophically fail as peak energy moves us into dangerous water and announces the great return of war.

Riane Eisler's article opposes domination based cultures, associated quite stereotypically to “masculine values” to partnership based societies, based on so-called “feminine values”. Typical domination cultures are, of course, the Nazis and the Taleban, which aren't, by the way, cultures but pathological political movements within the German and Pathan cultures respectively. The realty is, naturally, more complex. There have been – there are still – peaceful societies but those were – are – isolated cultures surviving in marginal areas nobody in his right mind would covet – the !kung comes to mind – or subject cultures who have basically surrendered their warring capacity to somebody else – that s also the case of the !kung who have been under the domination of neighboring bantu chiefdoms before being integrated into European colonial empires and their successor states. Autonomous hunter-gatherers, for instance the Sentinelese, are generally quite generous with their arrows. They just lack the means and the numbers to field large armies.

More troublesome, however, is the idea that war is first a moral problem, which can be solved by defeating the bad guys and helping other people to become nicer. This Manichean attitude, associated with an ill inspired pacifism in face of obviously dangerous and perverse governments or political movements, has caused more violence than anything else in history. No amount of wishful thinking will remove the fundamental cause of violence and strife in our species, that is competition for scarce resources, but it can, and do, divert activists' efforts from constructive actions and mess cleaning toward villain hunting and scapegoating. Even a cursory look at the history of the twentieth century will convince anyone that the only likely result is a very sizable body count.

Contrary to what neo-primitivists would like us to believe, war is an almost universal fact of life among humans. In his study, War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Lawrence H. Keeley found that about 90-95% of known societies engage in war. Those that did not are almost universally either isolated nomadic groups (for whom flight is an option), groups of defeated refugees, or small enclaves under the protection of a larger modern state. Beside, the mortality in tribal warfare was horrendous. In the Arnhem Land in northern Australia, 25% of adult males died in violent conflicts in the late nineteenth century and both archeology and oral history show that massacres and outright genocides were common places before the advent of organized armies removed the common man from the fighting.

Historically, war has been a conflict resolution method and a way for some societies to get scarce but much needed resources – not necessarily the most efficient one in every circumstances, mind you, but still an useful one in a world of hard limits. The same way all successful societies have learned to control suppress and divert violent instincts, all reasonably successful and healthy societies have learned to control warfare. This control could range from ritualized warfare waged by a small cadre of elite warriors to the modern “laws of war”. Contrary to the common wisdom, those rules were more often respected than not, even if for very pragmatic reasons. Thus, the very warlike Yanomamo of Brazil have a complex escalation system going from noisy chest pounding to Nomohoni, an all-out massacre brought about by treachery. Other groups conduct regular ritual fights – such as the Andean Tinku or the modern sport competitions – which alleviate communal tensions with little bloodshed.

Of course, at some point, somebody, whether he be called Napoleon or Shaka, will break the rule, generally at his great temporary advantage. This is, however, the exception rather than the rule and will quickly lead to the establishment of new rules.

The advent of industrialization and fossil fuels changed the face of war in two ways.

First, they enabled states to field – and feed – far larger armies without crippling their economy. Previously the size of armies had been limited by two factors : the necessity to keep enough men at home to tend the fields and the necessity to keep the warring men supplied. Various solutions were tried from seasonal warfare to corps of peasant soldiers, but modern mass armies were out of reach as long as the only available energy sources were the sun and the wind.

Second, they enabled polities to assert themselves without resorting to war. As long as the available resources were essentially fixed, the only way to better one's position was to lower one's neighbor's. There were exceptions – you could for instance divert trade in your direction or improve your infrastructure – but they were limited and at some point you were forced to expand or at least raid around.

This changed with industrialization as a seemingly unlimited internal growth became possible. The sharing of the fruits of growth were as unequal as ever but nearly everybody could at least get a bit of them. Besides, war became more and more uneconomical. What made the power and wealth of nations was less and less their natural resources – even if they were still important – but man made infrastructures, industries and skilled workers. All of these are far more easily destroyed by warfare. Besides, the better integration of state and society – what most people call patriotism – and the development of such social technologies as nationalism, guerrilla warfare and underground party made controlling an unwilling population more and more difficult and costly.

This, and the development of atomic weapons made war rarer and rarer in the core nations of the developed war. The last significant battle fought on American soil – a raid by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa - happened in 1916. Mainland France has been untouched by war since 1945 – there have been fightingsof various intensity in overseas territories up to 1998 and a low level insurgency in Corsica since the seventies but for the average French citizen, these are distant event without any effect upon his everyday life.

Wars still raged on the edge of the developed world but except when it made the price of such or such commodity skyrocket, it had less and less relevance for the average western citizen. They were often fought by professional soldiers in far away countries and at a very small cost. Few are aware, for instance, that France fought an undeclared war with Lybia in Chad during the eighties.

For modern westerners, war is something which is done abroad.

This is going to change with the advent of peak energy. Indeed, as internal growth becomes more and more difficult and political control of key resources more and more critical to the continued existence of an industrialized economy, the economics of war will change. With international politics becoming a zero sum game again – and even possibly a negative sum game – the only way to maintain one's standing will be by taking over other people's riches. At some point, trade will stop being a viable source of key materials and a country like France will have the choice between seizing them by force and watching its economy starve to death. We can be quite sure it will at least try to choose the former.

Moreover, resource depletion will blunt the edge of modern high-tech armies. The efficiency of these energy and resource hungry forces has been, in fact, declining for decades. They are very good at defeating conventional third world forces, but not so good at effectively control territories. In 1941, an embattled Britain conquered Iraq with a mere infantry division and held the country for six years without major problems. In 2003, a far richer America needed more than 300.000 soldiers and was far less successful at imposing a political solution.

This chronic inability to effectively control the territory will become steadily worse as the resources needed to make a high tech army becomes scarcer and scarcer. A Somali warband can work without oil or electronic support, an American division cut off from its bases is a sitting duck, a very costly sitting duck. Of course, this gradual irrelevance of high tech military is very unlikely to translate into outright defeat at the hand of “barbarian invaders”. Even resource starved, rich countries will long still be able to mobilize enough reserve to crush any kind of low tech opposition. What will happen will be that as their ability to control territory fades away, local warlords and gangs will grow in the interstices left by the retreat of official forces then replace them. It will be, by the way, a long process and even in countries where it is quite advanced – as in Mexico – state forces will happily destroy any warlord stupid enough to fight them in the open.

For the average westerner, however, this will make little difference. He will have to support – and even, in some cases, participate to – more and more foreign wars or surrender his prosperity. In the same time, he will be faced by a steady degradation of internal order. This process is less advanced in Europe than in America, but the general direction is the same, and those who see in our countries havens of peace and security should remember than in 2005 the French government was obliged to declare a state of emergency due to massive riots in urban ghettos.

What will become of “cultures of peace” in such an environment ? The answer is quite easy. With the possible exception of isolated enclaves, they will be gladly preyed upon by anybody bold or desperate enough to use force to ensure his survival. They will be forced into marginal territories, then will ultimately disappear, replaced by more competitive societies. This does not mean, of course, that predation is a better solution : it ultimately leads to the hollowed out society of today's American Empire. What this means is that democracy and freedom are worth nothing without the means and the will to defend them. The collapse of a civilization is always a troubled time, full of conflicts and invasions. Successful communities will also be those able to defend themselves. In such a violent world, Riane Eisler's irenic dream will have little place.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Family values

Every debate has its blind spots and the one about community in peak oil circles is no exception. It is fascinating to see how little discussion there is about what is, after all, the most basic community in all human society : family. There are, of course, good reasons for that. Few among us have any sympathy for the family values crowd, a species unfortunately every bit as widespread and nefarious on this side of the Atlantic as on the other one and we certainly don't want to be put in the same basket as they. This is, however, unfortunate, for, no matter how polluted it is by religious non-issues, the family question and its evolution is of the foremost importance if we want to make sense of the post-peak world.

Contrary to what common wisdom says, traditional families are quite diversified. In fact, aside from the fact children are reared by at least one of their biological parents and that normal people are not supposed to sleep with their sisters or mothers – the key word being “normal”, something Pharaos and Incas obviously were not - there is, in that matter as in many other, no universal model. In many cultures, the main masculine figure in the family is not the father but the maternal uncle, for instance. One – the Mosuo of south China – does not have any concept of marriage. As she comes of age, a girl is given a private room were she can invite “partners”. While most women have only one at any given time, they can change partner as often as they want without any further formality and nothing prevents them from having several lovers at the same time.

The Mosuo live in extended families, but those only include the maternal line. Biological fathers, even though they are generally known, are not members of the family and play little part in the education of their children. Those are reared by their mother, their aunts, their uncles and, of course by the matriarch, who is the real head of any Mosuo family. This system is quite recent, and was created and ruthlessly enforced by a now gone nobility which wanted to make sure commoners could not marry up. This however does not keep to be every bit as functional as the western nuclear family – itself a recent phenomenon – fundamentalists and lacanian psychoanalysts are so fond of.

What is almost universal, however, is the public, socially integrated nature of the family. No matter how weird its form, the family is almost everywhere an economic and political unit. As Cristopher Lasch pointed out, the idea of the family being a private place removed from the economic world is a fairly recent innovation. It appeared in Victorian England, among the upper class, and slowly spread outward and downward during the last two centuries until it became the norm at least in the developed world.

It is no coincidence that this idea appeared in the cradle of the industrial revolution. In the preindustrial world, families could hardly afford to keep one of their members idle. It was only after industrialization has created enough surplus that families were progressively removed from the economic sphere. It was a long process, marked by the generalization of mandatory schooling, the gradual emergence of childhood as a distinct part of life or the replacement of family workshops by factories. It was completed only after WWII when domestic economy became marginalized. It was not always a bad thing – generalized education certainly wasn't – but it certainly did not lead to an improved self-reliance.

This retreat from the productive world showed, of course, in the law, as family became, legally speaking less and less a social and economic institution and more and more a private association of private individuals. The last step in France was the creation of the PACS, a kind of civil union, aimed at homosexuals, but open to heterosexuals. It is steadily gaining ground in the general population and is probably bound to replace marriage at some point of the future. Unlike marriage, however, the PACS is a contract. It is far less protective and can be dissolved far more easily. The financial solidarity between the partners is limited to the goods they have specifically bought together and of course, there is no alimony.

This evolution has been made possible, however, only by industrialization and the ready availability of highly concentrated energy sources. They have enabled our society to build the layers of social complexity – corporations, state bureaucracies, logistic and education networks – the economic and social functions of family were basically outsourced to. As fossil fuels dwindle away, there will be less and less resource to support this complexity and it will progressively fade away.

Families will then be bound to assume again the social and economic role which was theirs in preindustrial times. In a way, this has already begun, as relatively well-off parents often helps, at least here, their struggling children, and this very effective solidarity has been a major factor in cushioning the effects of the crisis. As an ever greater part of the population slides into poverty and state and corporate services shrink the role of families in keeping the society together, materially as well as morally, will increase correspondingly.

This will be a slow process, of course, and it is likely to be restricted to the struggling middle classes at first, the rich clinging to the private haven model almost to the bitter end. There is no reason why the end result should be identical to the preindustrial extended family and gay marriage – or some variation of the PACS – and divorce could – and should – definitely be a part of the equation. Those existed in the past even if they were not common. Divorce was a recognized – and effective – right for women in early Islam and there definitely were same-sex unions in China and Rome, not to speak of the long established “third sex” tradition in the Pacific.

What definitely won't be a part of the equation is the Victorian idea of the family as a private place, only dedicated to marital – and sometimes parental – love, and without any responsibility toward the community. As one of the building blocks of any community, it will have to become fully integrated into it, with all the limitations this implies. This means, for instance, that its dissolution, even though it must remain possible, will have to be more carefully considered than in today's society, not because divorce is wrong, but because the break up of an household will have far reaching consequences for the community it is a part of.

But now, being an ecologist is about understanding limitations.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Farewell to the moon

It is a strange moment when you see an once cutting edge technology die. Of course, the common wisdom of our age – the so-called myth of progress – claims it cannot happen. Technologies may be made obsolete, they can turn out to be dead ends, but it is unthinkable for a whole avenue of progress to simply close down. That is exactly what has happened, however, when President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, and that tells a lot about the fate of technology in a energy poor future.

It took only nine years to the United States to land a man on the Moon, yet its technology was rudimentary by today's standards. Computers were slow and bulky and the Apollo spacecraft itself was launched by primitive rockets using a kind of kerosene as fuel. At the time, what has come to be considered as a mere prestige project was widely seen as a stepping stone. During my teen years – some twenty years ago – it was still widely expected that by the beginning of the twenty first century we would have some kind of moon base and that Mars would soon follow.

Science-Fiction, which never intended to predict the future but is a good indicator of a society's expectations, was more or less on the same line. All movies or TV series of the time, from the genial 2001 to the abysmally bad Space 1999 expected moon bases to be fully established and maned expeditions to be launched toward the outer solar system.

Needless to say, we are a far cry from it. The satellite market is thriving, but space exploration and colonization is at standstill, if not declining. Space shuttles – a technology nearly thirty years old – are no longer being replaced and their Russian and European counterparts have long been canceled. The International Space Station, supplied today by Russian rockets, has disappeared from the news and aside from a few specialists and enthusiasts most people don't even know it exists.

There is little doubt than both the shuttles and the ISS won't be replaced when they will go out of service. The expertise which made them possible will be lost as skilled personnel retires and dies, and the Moon will forever drift out of reach, no matter what space cadets dream of and politician say.

This is not the first technology to fall out of use. During the late sixties, supersonic planes were the wave of the future and the British and French governments cooperated to design and build a cutting edge airliner called Concorde. The project disastrously collided with the first oil shock and never recovered. Few planes were build. Lines were progressively discontinued until only one remained, between London, Paris and New York. The Paris 2000 crash put an end to it, and while commercial operations resumed a year later, they were quickly and quietly discontinued.

This pattern is likely to repeat itself as the decline in net energy available to our society makes keeping an advanced technology more and more difficult. There won't be any technological cliff, no abrupt return to the Middle-Age. Technologies will just loose momentum as the resources needed to advance them become scarcer and scarcer. They will become more and more restricted socially and geographically even as they become more and more advanced until they are reserved to a tiny elite. They then will fade out of public perception. Manufacturing will cease, for lack of a market, even though the technology itself will continue to be used, as it is the case today for the shuttle.

It is only when the lasts computers or the last cars are scrapped that the technology will have been truly abandoned, but that will happen long after the closure of the last factory and the death of the last engineer. We can be pretty sure, for instance, that the warlords of the late twenty first century will use armored vehicles, even though they will be thoroughly unable to build them. Such heirlooms may even prove very valuable strategic assets.

Of course the process will vary for every individual technology. Some, such as the car or the plane, may be 'phased out' in favor of 'greener', more 'advanced' alternatives, which will just happen to be available only to the wealthy. Others will continue to improve, but these improvement will be restricted to narrower and narrower sections of the population while the rest of us do in increasingly large numbers with older models. In the end the result will be the same : stagnation, end of manufacturing, then slow and quiet abandonment.

The cancellation of the Constellation Program is only another step on the way to the abandonment of an unsustainable technology. It shows, however,the way our whole technological civilization will go as the resource needed to maintain our industrial and social infrastructure grow short. A slow slide into stagnation followed by a long descent into irrelevance.