revising the future (alien space bats)

Wednesday 2011.09.21

Please park your flying cars and ignore your personal servant home robot for a moment as we review the future. Looking back at recent things I’ve written, one obvious fact is that I’ve devoted a fair amount of attention to the subject of looking toward the future. Back to it again. It can be funny stuff, or just plain tragic, looking back at past attempts by humans to predict the future. Sometimes somebody turns out to have gotten it very right, but more often, things like this tend to be major absurdity in retrospect when the times forecast are now the present or past.

It might be fair to say that the worst of this kind of thing comes from people making a very silly presumption, that the future will be like the present, but more, or something like that assuming some sort of linear continuation of a trend.

“Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” – economist Irving Fisher, October 21, 1929

Then, over the course of the next week or so, the American stock market proceeded to implode and crash.

There seems to be a common human condition at work. People think, things have been like this, now things are like this, so then the future is going to carry on and be like that. And then, it isn’t.

At the moment, I’m a little torn about the title to put on this, between “revising the future” and “Alien Space Bats”. One is a little dry and boring, referring to the general point here, the matter of a need to do some serious reconsideration of some widely held presumptions about what the future will bring. The other is actually about the same subject. It comes from a recent online piece from John Michael Greer, Invasion of the Space Bats.

I quote a section:

Get a story published in Analog, and you could reliably expect to have hundreds if not thousands of pairs of beady and remarkably well-informed eyes scanning every scientific detail. If you got some bit of hard science wrong, in turn, you could expect to hear about it at length, in fine technical detail, complete with calculations hot off the slide rule, in the letters to the editor column two issues down the road.

It’s occurred to me more than once that the peak oil field badly needs certain things science fiction has stashed in its imaginary warehouses, and one of them is a shipping container or two full of those eagle-eyed retired engineers who used to read Analog. Now of course we have some—to quote only one example, regular readers of The Oil Drum are familar with the very capable technical analysis that routinely appears there—but there aren’t enough to deal with the need for what might be called technical criticism: the careful, impartial, and exacting analysis of claims about not-yet-invented technologies and not-yet-created social movements that played so large a role in making science fiction the intellectually and even philosophically challenging genre that for a while, at least, it became.

And this, dear reader, is where we start talking about alien space bats.

No, those aren’t the symptoms of an unusually florid psychosis, nor do they feature in any significant number of science fiction stories—well, not since Ray Palmer’s time, at least. The term comes from the field of alternative history, the fascinating study of what could have happened if some small detail of history had gone the other way. Back in the early days of the internet, according to the account I’ve seen, one participant in a lively discussion on a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to alternative history insisted that Hitler’s planned invasion of Great Britain could only have succeeded if the Wehrmacht had been helped out by alien space bats. Whether he was right or not—a question I don’t propose to discuss here—the term caught on as a convenient label for the kind of arbitrary assumptions and implausible gimmicks that too often get used to prop up dubious alternative history scenarios.

It’s a useful term, and one that could helpfully be brought into the peak oil scene, because arbitrary assumptions and implausible gimmicks play an embarrassingly large role in discussions of how our industrial civilization is going to deal with the twilight of the age of fossil fuels. The “drill, baby, drill” mantra beloved of so many American pseudoconservatives these days is based, for example, on the wholly arbitrary assumption that the United States, which has been more thoroughly explored for petroleum deposits than any other piece of real estate on Earth, and has seen trillions of dollars of government largesse poured into encouraging domestic oil production in recent decades, still has vast amounts of crude oil tucked away somewhere that would flood the market with cheap petroleum if only those awful environmentalists weren’t getting in the way. That’s nonsense—politically useful nonsense, to be sure, but nonsense that ranks up there with the best alien space bats of alternative history.

It’s repeating things, but there’s something that has been expressed well before by James Kunstler, a very simple idea; we need to very quickly develop a general public consensus about reality based upon things as they really are.

I’ve obviously spent considerable time writing about the situation of petroleum, and that includes the concept of the patterns known as the “Hubbert curve”, or “Hubbert’s peak”, and usually covered in shorthand reference form as “peak oil”, along with the historical fact that oil extraction rates in the United States peaked around 1970. If that seems repetitive, there are a pair of good reasons. One is the extreme importance of all that. The other is, quite simply, that in any of the times when I have brought that stuff up live and in person in conversation with someone, I have never had the experience of somebody saying “oh, yeah, I know about that”. Never. Not one time, ever. This is not good.

You can find plenty of noisy chatter about the subject, though, that consists of endless piles of bullshit, delusions and fantasy.

How do people expect to plot a course and navigate when they don’t know where the hell we are?

Earlier today, Kunstler’s weekly online column was up, under a title that I think was just perfect, The Rainmakers. It follows right along the lines of something I referred to before as an example, of an episode of “Mad Money” with Jim Cramer on MSNBC. A show done on location in North Dakota featured a parade of people talking about the boundless wonders of oil and natural gas “boom” waited for America in the Bakken formation, if only, apparently, people shovelled enough investment cash into their particular respective enterprises.

There’s no shortage of people who believe that, if only there were the correct political policies, and business investment and management, and some vaguely imagined, as yet unknown innovations, that all we want and desire will be there for us in endless plenty, in just the form we want it, without limits. Physical reality has a hell of a hard time squeezing its way into all this to get a foothold in people’s consciousness.

Refer back to a couple of other pieces by Kunstler, an older article, “Making Other Arrangements“, and a more recent one, “Back To The Future” (hard to resist that title, I guess).

It’s easy to find, it’s actually hard to avoid, plenty of people who think in terms I’ve talked about before, that endless growth is not just possible, not only desireable, but actually required, necessary; that “human civilization” is something separate, apart, independent of “nature”, and what I already mentioned about fantasies of endless, infinite resources.

It’s hard to expect serious, earnest conversation among the citizenry when so much of the United States seems enamored of some idea that the country should be a corporate plutocracy and giant worldwide military empire under the control of Mammon, Incorporated, with Jesus and Ayn Rand sitting on the board of directors (although I have to wonder what Christ might have to say about all this).

It would seem reasonable to think that, given enough clues whacking us in the face, people would begin to wake up. But, evidently not. Even worse, what’s supposed to be “waking up” among a large chunk of the American populace now is a bizarre collection of nonsense from the “tea party” crowd. Kunstler hit things right on the head recently, saying that much of the world, operating as it does now, particularly the U.S., was going to be dragged kicking and screaming into a future where the realities of a finite world were going to make us operate very differently, whether we like it or not, whether we’ve planned for it realistically or not, and the current American tea party noises are early demonstrations of that kicking and screaming.

He nailed it perfectly. There are too many people who see a set of conditions that are relatively short term anomalies, virtual transient blips in human history (never mind the timeframe of the existence of the planet), as the rightful, natural, expected way of things.

I think there’s a very common tendency, even among people who ought to be able to know better, to view things as a kind of linear graph, so that you can just take the graphed data for something over thr past leading up to the present, and just extrapolate on from that. Things are going along on this line on a graph, so it will continue on like that.

Then, to great surprise for some people, it doesn’t.

This takes us back to M. King Hubbert and the pattern of Hubbert’s curve. When Hubbert publically presented the results of his studies, from his decades of work as a geophysisist working in the oil business, in 1956, this wasn’t well received. The biggest point was about the kind of thing just described. The rate of discoveries of oil deposits and the following rates of oil extraction (or “production”, a bit of a misnomer) were not perpetually rising straight line graphs, on and on, getting bigger and better as long as we wish. If you look at historical data of oil extraction rates for United States territory, if you place yourself in the perspective of somebody considering petroleum, in, say, 1968 or so, you can imagine how many people could so easily dismiss Hubbert as a mad old crackpot nut.

(I’ve included this graph in a piece before, but, for review..)


In an interview in the documentary “The End of Suburbia”, the late Matthew Simmons talked about people in the oil business mocking and dismissing Hubbert and his contentions, including his forecast that, based on the patterns he observed, and his analysis, oil extraction rates in the U.S. would reach a peak somewhere around 1970. People looked at the data and trends, and basically said “he’s crazy, look at the numbers, we’re pumping more every year, why, this year we’ve pumped out more oil than ever!”. Then, as people were saying this stuff, suddenly it wasn’t like that, and by the middle of the following decade, it became more and more clear that things were, in fact, going down the downside decline of Hubbert’s curve, as they have ever since, even with a brief bump in the downslope thanks to new flow of oil from Alaska.

Depending on how you look at it, your state of mind, it’s either funny or horrifying and baffling to scan around and look at assorted long term forecasts for oil from assorted supposed serious, learned organizations, government and private, academic and business, predicting that worldwide oil consumption rates will continue up and up, with oil “production” continuing up and up, to match.

There’s a big difference between wishing, and figuring out how things are actually likely to go.

There are way too many people banking on the wishful fantasy delusion projections of the future of petroleum and our use of the stuff, instead of getting a realistic grip on the reality, and getting on with the very serious project of changing how we do things, and how things are arranged, in ways that reflect reality and allow a functional future.

More or less ever since the end of the second world war, the trend in the United States has been for most American cities to be steadily expanding outward in concentric rings of suburban development, with more and more land that had been rural assimilated into this. I think that this is done, over. Aside from all the other problems that this has caused in how we live and function, including the rotting from the inside out decay of the centers of cities, the reality of remaining oil resources does not support this.

You can look at cities all over America and see places where there is a main larger city, that has an assortment of outlying satellite small villages and small towns that, over time, became assimilated into a large metropolitan area, mostly based on the foundation of petroleum fuelled commuting. This doesn’t have a good future.

Reversing the outward sprawl is necessary, to deal with the increasing consumption of petroleum resources that comes with the distances involved, in the arrangement of things in typical American sprawling metropolis suburbia, where people accept it as normal to drive petroleum fueled motor vehicles over distances that were serious journeys for their ancestors, just to go about daily life. If this isn’t done, it will end up being done anyway, one way or another, determined by the reality of physical resources. Reality has a way of being exactly what it is whether anybody chooses to believe it or not.

I was struck by something while reading Bill McKibben’s book “Eaarth”. Talking about something written by Thomas Friedman in one of his books, there was an item that McKibben noted, as an example of one particular kind of fault in thinking, and I agree with McKibben.

Freidman was apparently talking about the wonders of new technology of the “green” sort, saying something about having solar and wind driven electrical power generation, with new “smart” digital electronics controllers that would, as he put it, be smart enough to start the laundry drying when the sun was shining and the wind was blowing. This, essentially, is the “we got technology, dude” kind of attitude, the “new technological innovation will save us!” idea.

The point lost, somewhere, was another idea; how about a human being smart enough to know when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, and then hanging the laundry on a clothesline and letting the sunshine and wind dry the stuff? McKibben pointed this out, and he could not be more right. Somehow, simple rational realism gets buried. Perhaps, as I said in the last piece here, signals lost in the noise.

In a way, here we have something of a summary, a sort of metaphor, of how many things are.

You want to wash clothes and then dry them.

One crowd of people are shouting that we need to punch holes in the ground and use any toxic chemicals somebody might use to extract all the natural gas possible to have “limitless” and cheap natural gas to burn in clothes driers.

Another crowd repeats the Freidman idea of combining wind and solar electrical power generation with “smart” digital electronics to turn on the drier when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.

Hardly anybody even notices somebody saying “hey, why don’t we put clothes out on a clothesline and let the sunshine and breeze dry the clothes?”.

Maybe some of them are just waiting for alien space bats to come and fix everything.

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