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John Michael Greer: Planet of the Space Bats

John Michael Greer: Planet of the Space Bats thumbnail

As my regular readers know, I’ve been talking for quite a while now here about the speculative bubble that’s built up around the fracking phenomenon, and the catastrophic bust that’s guaranteed to follow so vast and delusional a boom. Over the six months or so, I’ve noted the arrival of one warning sign after another of the impending crash. As the saying has it, though, it’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings, so I’ve been listening for the first notes of the metaphorical aria that, in the best Wagnerian style, will rise above the orchestral score as the fracking industry’s surrogate Valhalla finally bursts into flames and goes crashing down into the Rhine.

I think I just heard those first high notes, though, in an improbable place: the email inbox of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), the Druid order I head.

I have no idea how many of my readers know the first thing about my unpaid day job as chief executive—the official title is Grand Archdruid—of one of the two dozen or so Druid orders in the western world. Most of what goes into that job, and the admittedly eccentric minority religious tradition behind it, has no relevance to the present subject. Still, I think most people know that Druids revere the natural world, and take ecology seriously even when that requires scrapping some of the absurd extravagances that pass for a normal lifestyle these days. Thus a Druid order is arguably the last place that would come to mind if you wanted to sell stock in a fracking company.

Nonetheless, that’s what happened. The bemused AODA office staff the other day fielded a solicitation from a stock firm trying to get Druids to invest their assets in the fracking industry.

Does that sound like a desperation move to you, dear reader? It certainly does to me—and there’s good reason to think that it probably sounds that way to the people who are trying to sell shares in fracking firms to one final round of clueless chumps, too. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (available outside the paywall here) noted that American banks have suddenly found themselves stuck with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of loans to fracking firms which they hoped to package up and sell to investors—but suddenly nobody’s buying. Bankruptcies and mass layoffs are becoming an everyday occurrence in the fracking industry, and the price of oil continues to lurch down as producers maximize production for the sake of immediate cash flow.

Why, though, isn’t the drop in the price of oil being met by an upsurge in consumption that drives the price back up, as the accepted rules of economics would predict? That’s the cream of the jest. Here in America, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the industrial world, four decades of enthusiastically bipartisan policies that benefited the rich at everyone else’s expense managed to prove Henry Ford’s famous argument: if you don’t pay your own employees enough that they can afford to buy your products, sooner or later, you’re going to go broke.

By driving down wages and forcing an ever larger fraction of the US population into permanent unemployment and poverty, the movers and shakers of America’s political class have managed to trigger a classic crisis of overproduction, in which goods go begging for buyers because too few people can afford to buy them at any price that will pay for their production. It’s not just oil that’s affected, either: scores of other commodities are plunging in price as the global economy tips over into depression. There’s a specter haunting the industrial world; it’s the ghost of Karl Marx, laughing with mordant glee as the soi-disant masters of the universe, having crushed his misbegotten Soviet stepchildren, go all out to make his prophecy of capitalism’s self-immolation look remarkably prescient.

The soaring price of crude oil in the wake of the 2005 global peak of conventional oil production should have served notice to the industrial world that, to adapt the title of Richard Heinberg’s excellent 2003 summary of the situation, the party was over:  the long era in which energy supplies had increased year over year was giving way to an unwelcome new reality in which decreasing energy supplies and increasing environmental blowback were the defining themes. As my readers doubtless noticed, though, the only people who willing to grasp that were out here on the fringes where archdruids lurk. Closer to the mainstream of our collective thinking, most people scrunched shut their eyes, plugged their ears with their fingers, and shouted “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” at the top of their lungs, in a desperate attempt to keep reality from getting a word in edgewise.

For the last five years or so, any attempt to talk about the impending twilight of the age of oil thus ran headfirst into a flurry of pro-fracking propaganda. Fatuous twaddle about America’s inevitable future as the world’s new energy superpower took the place of serious discussions of the predicament into which we’ve backed ourselves—and not for the first time, either. That’s what makes the attempt to get Druids to invest their life savings in fracking so funny, in a bleak sort of way: it’s an attempt to do for the fracking boom what the fracking boom attempted to do for industrial civilization as a whole—to pretend, in the teeth of the facts, that the unsustainable can be sustained for just a little while longer.

A few months back, I decided to celebrate this sort of thinking by way of the grand old Druid custom of satire. The Great Squirrel Case Challenge of 2015 solicited mock proposals for solving the world’s energy problems that were even nuttier than the ones in the mainstream media. That was no small challenge—a detail some of my readers pointed up by forwarding any number of clueless stories from the mainstream media loudly praising energy boondoggles of one kind or another.

I’m delighted to say, though, that the response was even better than I’d hoped for.  The contest fielded more than thirty entries, ranging from the merely very good to the sidesplittingly funny. There were two winners, one chosen by the members of the Green Wizards forum, one chosen by me; in both cases, it was no easy choice, and if I had enough author’s copies of my new book After Progress, I’d probably just up and given prizes to all the entries, they were that good. Still, it’s my honor to announce the winners:

My choice for best squirrel case—drumroll, please—goes to Steve Morgan, for his fine gosh-wow sales prospectus for, ahem, Shares of Hydrocarbons Imported from Titan. The Green Wizards forum choice—drumroll again—goes to Jason Heppenstall for his hilarious parody of a sycophantic media story, King Solomon’s Miners. Please join me in congratulating them. (Steve and Jason, drop me a comment with your mailing addresses, marked not for posting, and I’ll get your prizes on the way.)

Their hard-won triumph probably won’t last long. In the months and years ahead, I expect to see claims even more ludicrous being taken oh-so-seriously by the mainstream media, because the alternative is to face up to just how badly we’ve bungled the opportunities of the last four decades or so and just how rough a road we have ahead of us as a result. What gave the fracking bubble whatever plausibility it ever had, after all, was the way it fed on one of the faith-based credos at the heart of contemporary popular culture: the insistence, as pervasive as it is irrational, that the universe is somehow obligated to hand us abundant new energy sources to replace the ones we’ve already used so profligately. Lacking that blind faith, it would have been obvious to everyone—as it was to those of us in the peak oil community—that the fracking industry was scraping the bottom of the barrel and pretending that this proved the barrel was full.

Read the morning news with eyes freed from the deathgrip of the conventional wisdom and it’s brutally obvious that that’s what happened, and that the decline and fall of our civilization is well under way. Here in the US, a quarter of the country is in the fourth year of record drought, with snowpack on California’s Sierra Nevada mountains about 9% of normal; the Gulf Stream is slowing to a crawl due to the rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheets; permanent joblessness and grinding poverty have become pervasive in this country; the national infrastructure is coming apart after decades of malign neglect—well, I could go on; if you want to know what life is like in a falling civilization, go look out the window.

In the mainstream media, on the occasions when such things are mentioned at all, they’re treated as disconnected factoids irrelevant to the big picture. Most people haven’t yet grasped that these things are the big picture—that while we’re daydreaming about an assortment of shiny futures that look more or less like the present with more toys, climate change, resource depletion, collapsing infrastructure, economic contraction, and the implosion of political and cultural institutions are creating the future we’re going to inhabit. Too many of us suffer from a weird inability to imagine a future that isn’t simply a continuation of the present, even when such a future stands knocking at our own front doors.

So vast a failure of imagination can’t be overcome by the simple expedient of pointing out the ways that it’s already failed to explain the world in which we live. That said, there are other ways to break the grip of the conventional wisdom, and I’m pleased to say that one of those other ways seems to be making modest but definite headway just now.

Longtime readers here will remember that in 2011, this blog launched a contest for short stories about the kind of future we can actually expect—a future in which no deus ex machina saves industrial civilization from the exhaustion of its resource base, the deterioration of the natural systems that support it, and the normal process of decline and fall. That contest resulted in an anthology, After Oil: SF Stories of a Post-Petroleum Future, which found a surprisingly large audience. On the strength of its success, I ran a second contest in 2014, which resulted in two more volumes—After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis, which is now available, and After Oil 3: The Years of Rebirth, which is in preparation. Demand for the original volume has remained steady, and the second is selling well; after a conversation with the publisher, I’m pleased to announce that we’re going to do it again, with a slight twist.

The basic rules are mostly the same as before:

Stories should be between 2500 and 7500 words in length;

They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;

They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;

They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;

They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;

They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;

They should take place in settings subject to thermodynamic, ecological, and economic limits to growth; and as before,

They must not rely on “alien space bats”—that is, dei ex machina inserted to allow humanity to dodge the consequences of the limits to growth. (Aspiring authors might want to read the whole “Alien Space Bats” post for a more detailed explanation of what I mean here; reading the stories from one or both of the published After Oil volumes might also be a good plan.)

This time, though, I’m adding an additional rule:

Stories submitted for this contest must be set at least one thousand years in the future—that is, after March 25, 3015 in our calendar.

That’s partly a reflection of a common pattern in entries for the two previous contests, and partly something deeper. The common pattern? A great many authors submitted stories that were set during or immediately after the collapse of industrial civilization; there’s certainly room for those, enough so that the entire second volume is basically devoted to them, but tales of surviving decline and fall are only a small fraction of the galaxy of potential stories that would fit within the rules listed above.  I’d like to encourage entrants to consider telling something different, at least this time.

The deeper dimension? That’s a reflection of the blindness of the imagination discussed earlier in this post, the inability of so many people to think of a future that isn’t simply a prolongation of the present. Stories set in the immediate aftermath of our civilization don’t necessarily challenge that, and I think it’s high time to start talking about futures that are genuinely other—neither utopia nor oblivion, but different, radically different, from the linear extrapolations from the present that fill so many people’s imaginations these days, and have an embarrassingly large role even in science fiction.

You have to read SF from more than a few decades back to grasp just how tight the grip of a single linear vision of the future has become on what used to be a much more freewheeling literature of ideas. In book after book, and even more in film after film, technologies that are obviously derived from ours, ideologies that are indistinguishable from ours, political and economic arrangements that could pass for ours, and attitudes and ideas that belong to this or that side of today’s cultural struggles get projected onto the future as though they’re the only imaginable options. This takes place even when there’s very good reason to think that the linear continuation of current trends isn’t an option at all—for example, the endlessly regurgitated, done-to-death trope of interstellar travel.

Let us please be real:  we aren’t going to the stars—not in our lifetimes, not in the lifetime of industrial civilization, not in the lifetime of our species. There are equally  good thermodynamic and economic reasons to believe that many of the other standard tropes of contemporary science fiction are just as unreachable—that, for example, limitless energy from gimmicks of the dilithium-crystal variety, artificial intelligences capable of human or superhuman thought, and the like belong to fantasy, not to the kind of science fiction that has any likelihood of becoming science fact. Any of my readers who want to insist that human beings can create anything they can imagine, by the way, are welcome to claim that, just as soon as they provide me with a working perpetual motion machine.

It’s surprisingly common to see people insist that the absence of the particular set of doodads common to today’s science fiction would condemn our descendants to a future of endless boredom. This attitude shows a bizarre stunting of the imagination—not least because stories about interstellar travel normally end up landing the protagonists in a world closely modeled on some past or present corner of the Earth. If our genus lasts as long as the average genus of vertebrate megafauna, we’ve got maybe ten million years ahead of us, or roughly two thousand times as long as all of recorded human history to date: more than enough time for human beings to come up with a dazzling assortment of creative, unexpected, radically different societies, technologies, and ways of facing the universe and themselves.

That’s what I’d like to see in submissions to this year’s Space Bats challenge—yes, it’ll be an annual thing from here on out, as long as the market for such stories remains lively. A thousand years from now, industrial civilization will be as far in the past as the Roman Empire was at the time of the Renaissance, and new human societies will have arisen to pass their own judgment on the relics of our age. Ten thousand years from now, or ten million? Those are also options. Fling yourself into the far future, far enough that today’s crises are matters for the history books, or tales out of ancient myth, or forgotten as completely as the crises and achievements of the Neanderthal people are today, and tell a story about human beings (or, potentially, post-human beings) confronting the challenges of their own time in their own way. Do it with verve and a good readable style, and your story may be be one of the ones chosen to appear in the pages of After Oil 4:  The Future’s Distant Shores.

The mechanics are pretty much the same as before. Write your story and post it to the internet—if you don’t have a blog, you can get one for free from Blogspot or WordPress. Post a link to it in the comments to The Archdruid Report. You can write more than one story, but please let me know which one you want entered in the competition—there will be only one entry accepted per author this time. Stories must be written and posted online, and a link posted to this blog, by August 30, 2015 to be eligible for inclusion in the anthology.

The Archdruid Report

3 Comments on "John Michael Greer: Planet of the Space Bats"

  1. Makati1 on Thu, 26th Mar 2015 8:49 am 

    Might be fun to write a mini-novel and submit it. After writing an 88 thousand plus word SF novel along the same lines, this should be easy … or not. Would be fun to try though.

  2. Solarity on Thu, 26th Mar 2015 11:49 am 

    The Henry Ford quote is correct, but what he really meant was: “If you don’t pay your own employees enough that they can afford to buy [the products they make], sooner or later, you’re going to go broke.”

    And to paraphrase a common saying: Those who produce will reap the benefits of what they produce. Currently, the people who are producing functional, worthwhile (though perhaps not of highest quality) products are the Chinese, and they are being rewarded. Many Americans today simply shuffle paper in low-skill, low-level employment hence lower income.

  3. Arthur75 on Thu, 26th Mar 2015 5:06 pm 

    “They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;”

    why in English ?

    252. They are not a philosophical race–the English: Bacon represents an ATTACK on the philosophical spirit generally, Hobbes, Hume, and Locke, an abasement, and a depreciation of the idea of a “philosopher” for more than a century. It was AGAINST Hume that Kant uprose and raised himself; it was Locke of whom Schelling RIGHTLY said, “JE MEPRISE LOCKE”; in the struggle against the English mechanical stultification of the world, Hegel and Schopenhauer (along with Goethe) were of one accord; the two hostile brother-geniuses in philosophy, who pushed in different directions towards the opposite poles of German thought, and thereby wronged each other as only brothers will do.–What is lacking in England, and has always been lacking, that half-actor and rhetorician knew well enough, the absurd muddle-head, Carlyle, who sought to conceal under passionate grimaces what he knew about himself: namely, what was LACKING in Carlyle–real POWER of intellect, real DEPTH of intellectual perception, in short, philosophy. It is characteristic of such an unphilosophical race to hold on firmly to Christianity–they NEED its discipline for “moralizing” and humanizing. The Englishman, more gloomy, sensual, headstrong, and brutal than the German–is for that very reason, as the baser of the two, also the most pious: he has all the MORE NEED of Christianity. To finer nostrils, this English Christianity itself has still a characteristic English taint of spleen and alcoholic excess, for which, owing to good reasons, it is used as an antidote–the finer poison to neutralize the coarser: a finer form of poisoning is in fact a step in advance with coarse-mannered people, a step towards spiritualization. The English coarseness and rustic demureness is still most satisfactorily disguised by Christian pantomime, and by praying and psalm-singing (or, more correctly, it is thereby explained and differently expressed); and for the herd of drunkards and rakes who formerly learned moral grunting under the influence of Methodism (and more recently as the “Salvation Army”), a penitential fit may really be the relatively highest manifestation of “humanity” to which they can be elevated: so much may reasonably be admitted. That, however, which offends even in the humanest Englishman is his lack of music, to speak figuratively (and also literally): he has neither rhythm nor dance in the movements of his soul and body; indeed, not even the desire for rhythm and dance, for “music.” Listen to him speaking; look at the most beautiful Englishwoman WALKING–in no country on earth are there more beautiful doves and swans; finally, listen to them singing! But I ask too much . . .

    253. There are truths which are best recognized by mediocre minds, because they are best adapted for them, there are truths which only possess charms and seductive power for mediocre spirits:–one is pushed to this probably unpleasant conclusion, now that the influence of respectable but mediocre Englishmen–I may mention Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer–begins to gain the ascendancy in the middle-class region of European taste. Indeed, who could doubt that it is a useful thing for SUCH minds to have the ascendancy for a time? It would be an error to consider the highly developed and independently soaring minds as specially qualified for determining and collecting many little common facts, and deducing conclusions from them; as exceptions, they are rather from the first in no very favourable position towards those who are “the rules.” After all, they have more to do than merely to perceive:–in effect, they have to BE something new, they have to SIGNIFY something new, they have to REPRESENT new values! The gulf between knowledge and capacity is perhaps greater, and also more mysterious, than one thinks: the capable man in the grand style, the creator, will possibly have to be an ignorant person;–while on the other hand, for scientific discoveries like those of Darwin, a certain narrowness, aridity, and industrious carefulness (in short, something English) may not be unfavourable for arriving at them.–Finally, let it not be forgotten that the English, with their profound mediocrity, brought about once before a general depression of European intelligence.

    What is called “modern ideas,” or “the ideas of the eighteenth century,” or “French ideas”–that, consequently, against which the GERMAN mind rose up with profound disgust–is of English origin, there is no doubt about it. The French were only the apes and actors of these ideas, their best soldiers, and likewise, alas! their first and profoundest VICTIMS; for owing to the diabolical Anglomania of “modern ideas,” the AME FRANCAIS has in the end become so thin and emaciated, that at present one recalls its sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its profound, passionate strength, its inventive excellency, almost with disbelief. One must, however, maintain this verdict of historical justice in a determined manner, and defend it against present prejudices and appearances: the European NOBLESSE–of sentiment, taste, and manners, taking the word in every high sense–is the work and invention of FRANCE; the European ignobleness, the plebeianism of modern ideas–is ENGLAND’S work and invention. ”

    note : this translation not the best (especially regarding these all caps words), cannot find the one I was looking for.

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