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The Ultimate Trap

It is one of the most compelling videos I never saw. It was described to me, as I recall, as a commercial of some kind that aired years ago in Canada. The scene is a crowded escalator in some busy store or subway station that without warning clanks to a stop. For a few moments the crowd simply stands there, staring straight ahead, waiting for the escalator to start moving again. Then they begin looking around and at each other with rising anxiety, until a few of them at first, then virtually all of them, begin calling loudly for help.

There simply is no better way to visualize what is happening to us in this new American century. We are trapped on an escalator. We have forgot how to walk. We have accepted as our due the blandishments of industrial technology. With an élan that would make Marie Antoinette blush we diddle the switches around us to make sure our air temperature stays at 68 degrees, humidified or dehumidified depending on the season, the texture of our ice cream is just right, our bath is steamy and our instant dinner microwaved just so. And we give not a thought to what we have lost.

In this we are like the Native Americans who five hundred years ago joyously accepted from white men the gifts of iron pots, steel knives and firearms. They were not gifts, or course, they were token payments for the furs that were making the white men rich. A generation or so later, when the fur-bearing animals were all dead and the gifts were withdrawn, the People did not remember how to hunt, grow, prepare or cook their food. Helpless in a land of plenty, they were herded onto reservations to live out their lives on welfare.

The gifts of our technology are not gifts, either. They have made a lot of people rich. And those people have used their wealth not only to live well -- after all, we all do -- but to distract us from the fact that our counterparts to the fur-bearing animals of old, our oil and potable water and topsoil and agreeable climate are nearly all gone, and our gifts are about to be withdrawn. They don't arrest us native Americans and make us live on reservations any more, it's a lot easier to give us television to watch, filled with comedies and murder mysteries and reassuring messages about how the largest corporations are creating jobs for us and making sure the planet is going to be OK.

When the TV screen flickers off and the microwave won't wave any more, are we going to sit helplessly in our leather recliners and cry for help? When the super-grocery-mart is empty because the trucks and planes can't move the mangoes from Asia and the lettuce from California any more, are we going to wander the barren aisles, yelling for help? Will we remember anything we all once knew about hunting, growing, preparing or cooking food?

Or will we be marooned on an escalator, waiting for rescue?

End of Story

It is our great misfortune to be living at the end of an age.

It is great fun, although a little dangerous, to be in on the beginning of an era. Think what it would have been like to be there when this one started, when everyone was an inventor, an explorer, a thinker of new things. Perhaps the greatest sustained pleasure is to be had in the middle decades -- think the 1950s – when your people bestride the world like a Colossus, Mother Nature herself bends to your will and life is draped with ease, luxury and the promise of more. Then, always, the end comes. It's coming now. You know it.

We are as people on an airliner flying through the night, hearing odd noises from the engines, a strange rushing wind over the fuselage, a slightly inappropriate tilt to the cabin, but we have been reluctant to take our eyes from the movie screen, or relinquish our hold on our drink, to find out what is happening, because whatever we find out probably won't be good. At some level, we know, and we have known for a while now. But as long as we don't know for sure, we can keep the dread contained, down in the basement of our mind. If we go forward into the cockpit, and there's nobody there, what then? If we look out the window and see the ground coming up at us, what's the point in that?

It's time. Time to go forward, to look out the window. Time to brace for impact.

Every system in the web of life on which our survival depends, and every human institution devised to maintain our welfare, is breaking down. Implacably increasing stresses of our own making on all these systems and institutions have made it inevitable that in the near future, one or more of them will fail, setting off a catastrophic cascade of effects.

The notion of impending cataclysm runs counter to the chamber-of-commerce optimism that is pervasive in our political and commercial speech. It is not mentioned on the Sunday talk shows or in campaign speeches. It is not well tolerated as cocktail-party chatter. ("Is this," asked a charming hostess not long ago as I warmed to this subject, "the point where I smile brightly, and edge away?") A sunny faith in the ability of technology to solve any problems that confront us is universally preferred. Nevertheless, as this book will establish, technology is not the solution, it is the problem.

The case made here is different from the new orthodoxy that has formed around the issue of global warming. While I have no doubt that climate change is real and that our sins have contributed to it, its effects, while disastrous, are probably going to be more subtle and remote than many of the other dangers we face. What is more, whatever chance we had to avert climate change passed decades ago. There is now no chance -- make no mistake, the probability is zero -- that we will find the political will to do the difficult things required to reduce drastically and soon our emissions of the greenhouse gases that are trapping heat in our atmosphere. If we did manage to take some moderately difficult steps in the right direction, the probability that they would significantly change the course of global warming is vanishingly small. The damage has already been done, and the resulting processes will run until a new planetary equilibrium is achieved. Meanwhile, the chances are very good that some other crisis -- affecting our supply of food, for example, or of water or energy -- will threaten our survival long before the worst effects of global warming are felt.

Whatever you prefer to call this age that is ending -- the Industrial Revolution, the American Century, the Global Economy, or something else -- its origins lie three hundred years or so in the past, when those who thought of themselves as civilized people came to believe that the world they inhabited was a machine, and that they could run it.

A metaphor can be a powerful assistant, organizer, even director of thought and communication. Imagine how you would explain the ocean to a person who had never seen it. It is like a swimming pool, you might say, only bigger. The water is like the water in your tap, only saltier. The waves are like the ripples on Grandpa's pond, but huge, slow-moving and noisy. Metaphors, like words themselves, do not contain or convey meaning, they hint at meaning. Each metaphor contributes a piece of an attribute allowing the listener, you can only hope, to assemble something like the concept of ocean that you are trying to get across.

It is always a mistake to substitute the metaphor for the reality. The ocean is not a big bathtub. If a man tells his wife that she is like a beautiful movie star, he will be richly blessed for the compliment. She will understand his meaning: that in certain respects -- her pouty lips, perhaps, or flashing eyes -- she reminds him of Angelina Jolie. If, however, he comes to believe that she is Angelina Jolie, he is likely to face an involuntary commitment to treatment. Yet we -- the whole modern world -- are quite comfortable in the mistaken belief that the world does not just resemble a machine, it is one.

It may be useful, for example, to say the human body is like a machine in the way it uses food as fuel, converting it to energy to perform work. But the comparison merely hints at the incomprehensible complexity of what “fuels” the body can use, what processes convert them to energy and what further processes use that energy in work. Anyone who limits their understanding of the body to that one metaphor is in danger of doing serious harm.

Yet the metaphor of body-as-machine is vastly useful to the purveyors of, for example, drugs and industrialized foodstuff. You cannot watch television for an hour without seeing some simplistic animation explaining how a medication works, or a claim that something you ingest will have a predictable, straightforward and uniform effect. The success of these relentless voices is such that they have turned an astounding proportion of us into obese, over medicated blobs looking for a magic pill with which to fix our “machines.”

Similarly, it is one thing to observe that in certain limited respects, some processes in the world have a machine-like rigidity of cause and effect; it is quite another to believe the entire world operates as a machine and can be managed as such. The belief is held and insistently promulgated by those in line to make fortunes from selling us chemicals and implements with which to fix the various perceived deficiencies in the machine. As with our bodies, the effects of treating the whole planet as if it really were a machine -- instead of the wondrously complex, living organism that it is -- are similar, but worse by several orders of magnitude.

Now, the era made by the people who believed that the world is a machine, and that they could run it better, is staggering to its end under the accumulated weight of all the mistakes that arose from those two assumptions.

Running on Empty

We are running out of food. Never mind the commercials for Archer Daniels Midland, or the speeches of the farm-belt politicians, about the productivity of the American farmer. The American farmer -- who today is typically a suited CEO, not the overalls-clad yeoman of Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic -- has squandered his inheritance of topsoil, fouled our air and water, denuded the ecosystem of essential species, become an incurable petroleum addict, and created a system of monoculture that invites disaster as a dry forest invites fire.

We are running out of water. Our governors have not made, or allowed anyone else to make, any calculations of the actual effects of our mindless urban sprawl or our mindless agricultural practices. (How else would you describe making a desert -- the Imperial Valley of California -- the nation’s principal source of lettuce, one of the thirstiest plants known, using government-subsidized water piped in from 80 miles away?) Our aquifers are dropping, our reservoirs are shrinking, and the day comes ever closer when a large metropolitan area suddenly will have nothing to drink. (In the late fall of 2007, metro Atlanta’s five million souls were declared to be 90 days away from exactly that.) Yet no government agency has the guts to require, nor any other group the good sense to try, conservation of water in any substantial way.

We are running out of oil. There is a finite amount of it, and the demand curve is climbing like a jet fighter trying to escape a heat-seeking missile. Predictions about when we will run out are usually comfortably in the future, but the real trouble -- the end game, in fact -- begins on the day the world realizes that a condition known as peak oil has been reached. All oil production follows the same pattern, as Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert explained in 1958: after discovery, a rapid increase, then a kind of plateau leading to peak production, then an ever-increasing falloff to nothing. That is true of individual wells, and also true of all the wells in the world taken together. United States production peaked in 1970 and has been falling, ever more steeply, since. World production is either at, approaching, or slightly past peak depending on whose calculation you credit. The point is that very soon after peak oil production is reached, there will come a day when an order for oil cannot be filled at any price. That is the day that all hell breaks loose.

We are running out of money. Our government, and our people are living on credit, spending more than they take in, saving nothing, and ignoring the accumulating debt that already is large enough to smother the next generations. Large corporations are doing well, despite the recent meltdown of the Casino Economy, by importing cheap goods or expensive oil, while selling little overseas except dubious financial instruments, with the result that massive amounts of our currency have accumulated in the hands of other countries.

We are running out of time.

Meanwhile our government, whose foremost responsibility is to protect us from harm, does nothing, plans nothing, and says nothing about the prospects for catastrophe. Before Hurricane Katrina, few believed such a statement; now, few can doubt it. With rare exceptions (for compelling reason, which we will discuss in Chapter Five), no politicians will discuss the gravity of the multiple threats that face us. Our media step gingerly here, balancing every news account of impending crisis with an opposing view from some technology guru. Suggestions that everything could break down are relegated to action movies and tabloid-like documentaries on cable channels (When Yellowstone Erupts was a recent example).

Who, Me?

And who am I to be predicting the collapse of society? How many collapses have I witnessed, personally? What degrees in catastrophe do I possess?

This book is a review of readily available information, across many disciplines and fields of endeavor, upon which it draws logical conclusions. It is the work of a generalist, not a specialist. We are trained by our industrial society to subdue common sense and listen only to the advice of experts, high priests of technology who tell us what to grow and eat, how to use chemicals to make everything better, what the latest gifts of technology might be. We have forgot the value of generalists who gaze across the rutted tracks of the specialties and notice that where we want to go is not in that direction.

In the late 1960s, the science of geology was transformed by a massive paradigm shift -- the sudden acceptance of plate tectonics. One of the experts confounded by this change described it this way: we were busily examining the planks in the deck, he said, when someone looked up and noticed that the ship was moving. That someone was a generalist.

I am an expert on experts. I have been interviewing them all my professional life, and then trying to translate what they said into comprehensible English. I have identified a syndrome -- I call it "creeping expertise" -- that affects people who come to know more and more about less and less. The more an expert knows about a thing, the less interested he is in the things everybody else knows about that thing. Pretty soon even the stuff other experts know become old hat, and a guy who once could talk engagingly about the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg is now consumed by the role of the commander of the 52nd Ohio Regiment on the late afternoon of the second day. The only way he can talk to an ordinary mortal is to get a translator or go through a de-expertification program.

I'm the translator, and I'm a generalist. I have talked to the experts from biologist to vulcanologist, have translated their arcane speech into English, and have merged one with another.

Allow me a personal word about how I came to this position. From 1960, when I was 18 years old, to 2003, while making my living as a journalist, I was continually involved in political and environmental activism. I served at the management level in political campaigns for offices ranging from small-town council to President of the United States (in Howard Baker’s 1980 run I was, albeit briefly because of his withdrawal from the race, responsible for three states). During this time among other things I was the principal editor of the Time-Life Books series on the earth sciences, “Planet Earth,” and for six years wrote the authoritative “EQ Index,” an annual review of the state of the environment in the United States, for National Wildlife Magazine and the World Almanac. I am the author of five books, four on American history and one on American wildlife.

I have been alarmed about the trends described herein for more than 25 years. During the 1980s and 1990s, I did not regard any of these trends as necessarily terminal, but rather as serious challenges with which informed people could deal successfully through political action. I spent a good many of those years, while exerting myself as an activist, advocate and candidate, mystified about why these issues gained so little traction in the media, in politics, and in the public discourse.

I have since learned why. And the knowledge has impelled me to the belief that it is too late to avert the crash of our civilization.

The Mortality of Hope

"How are you doing?" a character was asked in a novel I read a long time ago. "A lot better," was the answer, "since I gave up hope."

I submit that it is only in giving up hope for our benighted industrial civilization that we can grasp the hope that exists for us as humans. Logic and facts inexorably lead to two conclusions: that the world cannot be saved; and that we can save ourselves. There is no scenario that shows us how to convert the United States to renewable and sustainable energy, yet there is no reason that you or I, along with our families, cannot be living on renewable and sustainable energy within a few months. There is no way to provide wholesome, local food for the population of the nation; for you and me and our families, it is simply a matter of making some choices and doing some work. You and I could create a sanctuary for our families capable of sustaining even the loss of our civilization. In the worst case, our sanctuaries would replace our civilization.

An even more hopeful scenario could be held out: that if you and I, and our friends and their friends, begin to take seriously the desperate need for sustainable living, and act on it, and learn about it, and do it, we could create a critical mass of people who could shift our entire civilization toward sustainability.

But it's probably too late for that. If you are on a luxury cruise aboard a marvel of modern technology, no one is going to convince you that you should tear yourself away from the banquets and the champagne and the dancing to work frantically building a lifeboat. Then for a time, after your Titanic has hit its iceberg, it may be appropriate to work with the crew and the other passengers to try to save the ship. But there comes a time, when the bow is down and the water is rushing in and time is running out, that it is appropriate to save yourself.

That time is now. It is the end of our voyage. The end of an age.