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The Coming Dark Age

By Guy R McPherson

22 June, 2010

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer, one of my philosophical heroes)

Based on recent comments in this space, and also in my email in-box, I am compelled to provide an updated overview of my proposed agenda in light of the ongoing collapse of the world’s industrial economy. There’s nothing new here, but plenty of people don’t have the time to read what I’ve written in the past so, in spasms of foolish ignorance, they keep asking me to stop driving my car (trust me, I’d love to … and I go for weeks at a time without doing so) or cease speaking and writing about economic collapse because it is not happening (and, in a related issue, there’s an invisible man in the sky who loves us and wants us to be happy).

The other primary topic of conversation, real and virtual, begins with “Okay, but what can I do?” As if I’ve ignored that particular question. “No, but I mean me. Here in Phoenix. With no money and no spare time.”

Sigh. If you’re unwilling to change, you’ll simply have to let change happen to you. And Bill Clinton was correct about this issue: People like change in general, but not in particular. Nobody who is unwilling to change is liable to appreciate the change headed their way.

If you’re willing to change, perhaps you’ll seek ideas and inspiration from sources other than me. Perhaps you’ll test your courage, creativity, and compassion. You’re going to need those attributes soon enough anyway, so you might as well drag them out now.

I think the ongoing economic collapse is driven by declining energy supply at the world level: We passed the world peak of conventional crude oil in 2005. Considering the primacy of oil to the industrial economy and therefore to our way of living, it’s no surprise the industrial economy is unraveling. Fortunately, it’s taking disaster capitalism with it, albeit far too slowly to suit me.

My hope, of course, is completion of the economic collapse in time to save the remaining fragments of the world’s biological diversity and perhaps even habitat for our own species. Call me a dreamer. Recognizing that it’s generally a waste of time to try to convince people we’re headed for economic disaster and therefore environmental nirvana, that, regardless, is my mission.

I have no interest in trying to save civilization, which is irredeemable and omnicidal. But I am interested in extending the lives of the relatively few people in the industrialized world willing to make substantive changes in their lives. Sadly, that leaves out nearly everybody with whom I converse or correspond.

Conservation is irrelevant at this point and, with respect to materials that are too cheap to meter, conservation probably has always been irrelevant. That’s the crux of Jevons’ paradox. Although Jevons’ paradox assumes free markets, and all markets are manipulated, it is not at all clear to me that relaxing the free-market assumption would have a significant influence on the global outcome of energy markets. Furthermore, if you’re really a believer in free markets and lack of governmental interference in those markets, then oil is the premier example of a global free market.

Many people are concerned we’ll respond to Jevons’ paradox with hedonism. As if we’re not already there.

If you think individual conservation efforts scale up to society, consider an incomplete but still stunning overview of the statistics on energy use. For example, the energy in a million barrels of crude oil — the amount gushing in the Gulf of Mexico every ten days or so — will supply your house with power for the next 81,000 years or so but will keep cars on U.S. highways for about four hours. So, at some level we’re all BP (those of you cheering for the industrial economy have company from J.P. Morgan Chase on the BP issue — the spill and cleanup apparently will enhance GDP, at least in the short run). More pragmatically, though, we each bear about as much responsibility for BP’s incompetence and recklessness as we bear for causing planetary ice to melt, the financial success of Wal-Mart, and the microfauna in belly of the nearest polar bear. As much as the media and politicians would like you to feel responsible and guilty, you should feel neither.

I regularly promote the idea of hastening economic collapse. If you’re not on board with that idea, but you still see the huge neon signs pointing us in that direction, perhaps you can be convinced to pursue a modicum of self reliance.

The notion of self reliance, long discarded in a nation where we enslave others to do our drudgery, is about to make a profound comeback. When the new Dark Age gets under way, people who are willing to do useful things with their hands and minds will be welcome additions in any community. The contemporary idea of American-style independence is, in Orwellian fashion, the exact opposite of independence. To secure our food, water, and body temperature, we have become wholly dependent on a large-scale system (the industrial economy). This is the diametric opposite of self reliance, and it’s long past time to focus on self reliance within the context of the interdependence of people in communities. We need each other, but we do not need the industrial economy.

How do you provide service to your community? What preparations should you make to thrive during the post-carbon era, and to help your community thrive, too?

I have written at length about the preparations I’ve made, with a focus on water, food, body temperature, human community, and living a life of service (in this case, four out of five gets you the equivalent of a cake with no flour). Securing these elements has been done by humans for about two million years in the absence of the industrial economy. Only recently have we become dependent on a system that is making us crazy and killing us. I suggest we get out of this system. If that cannot be done in your specific location — and I’m thinking about places such as Tucson, Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Los Angeles, California — I strongly suggest changing locations. The other obvious alternative is to re-arrange the deck chairs as the cruise ship of empire takes on even more water. There are many approaches to be pursued on this front, including recycling, joining a CSA, riding the bus, and volunteering in the local literacy movement. These are noble causes, but they won’t save you or your community. And if you don’t save yourself, you won’t be able to help anybody else.

People often ask me how they can make the kinds of changes I’ve made, without actually making those changes themselves. That is, how can they turn their lives upside-down without actually changing a thing? They blame lack of finances (which, as I’ve pointed out with my own example, can be overcome by joining others in a community-based effort). They blame an unwillingness to leave the apex of empire, the large city they occupy (i.e., they do not agree with my view that industrial economy is inherently immoral). They blame the marauding hordes certain to find them if they get out of the city (i.e., they use any and every excuse to avoid taking action). Comfortable with the immorality of their lives, unwilling to forgo empire in exchange for the difficulty of self reliance, brainwashed by culture to keep pursuing this particular version of culture, they are hopelessly trapped in a hapless situation. Although I recognize the power of culture and the lack of free will for human animals, I’m beginning to lose sympathy.

Empires don’t break up, they break down. And American Empire is obviously breaking down, with abundant evidence to be found in the striking absence of any appeal to the common good from governments at any level. There has been no semblance of morality emanating from the fascists running the corporations, and therefore the country, since at least 1980. I don’t expect a vast outpouring of empathy and compassion any time soon. Faux compassion, of course. But the real deal? I hardly think so.

Although some insist a slow descent is likely, I have yet to understand how that can possibly work. Feel free to fill me in. Do we dim the lights one percent annually so that, in one hundred years, the electricity goes out without our noticing? Do we reduce our extraction of finite materials a few percent each year, even as the human population grows by more than 200,000 people daily, until we simply, peacefully, stop using everything needed to maintain the industrial economy? Do we slowly, painlessly, with no suffering at all, reduce the human population to a viable number? What is that number? A billion? Fewer?

All these outcomes seem quite unlikely to me. I think we’re so committed to unlimited, exponential growth on a finite planet that we’ll do whatever it takes to delude ourselves into believing that impossibility. If that means we have to destroy everybody and everything so we can have ice cream and cookies every night, that’s exactly what we’ll do. We’re an industrialized world of overfed clowns and we think others are laughing with us instead of at us. In short, I need somebody to show me another way. I’m eager to learn how we can prevent unimaginable suffering and catastrophic die-off on a finite planet. Sans miracles, of course.

Looking back, and relying on a plethora of economic metrics, it’s evident we’ve experienced a lost decade. So we can trace the economic decay to 2000 or so. It’s easy enough to can go back further, tracing the imperial decline to 1979 with the Carter doctrine. Or 1956 with the Interstate Highway System. Or the late 1940s with the federal government’s promotion of suburbia. Or 1789 with the unrelenting thirst for empire at all costs exhibited by the founding fathers. With respect to any of these temporal benchmarks, the decay clearly has accelerated in recent years and months.

From the day I predicted the new Dark Age would begin by the end of 2012, the criticism has been continuous. Most critics, citing no evidence and no understanding of peak oil and its economic consequences, claim we’ll surely adjust and adapt and generally demonstrate our big-brained brilliance with a long descent into peace, prosperity, and infinite good times. Adding balance in a mainstream media kind of way, the occasional critic optimistically — without recognizing the optimism — claims the Dark Age will begin well before 2012. We should be so lucky.

Guy R. McPherson, Professor Emeritus
University of Arizona
School of Natural Resources & the Environment and
Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Biological Sciences East 325
Tucson, Arizona 85721

email: grm@ag.arizona.edu