Thursday, October 11, 2007

Gandalf, Gunpowder and Neil Gaiman's cats

A follow up to 'The Holiness of Stuart Staniford'.

Last week Zachary Nowak paid me the compliment of responding to my article 'The Holiness of Stuart Staniford'. Nowak has written some very good articles about Peak Oil and the right way to respond to it (see here, here and here) and I should say up front that I would not class him as a 'doomer' in the sense I was referring to in my holiness article (or in this one). However, it might be worth pursuing the debate a bit further - and that will take me on a little detour, via Neil Gaiman, Gandalf and Oliver Cromwell....

What often seems to be at issue when considering a 'doomer' perspective is what it is reasonable to believe. Zachary writes 'I simply would like to make the point that we realists (Oh fine, "we doomers") think what we do because of our logical analysis of the facts...' and he contrasts this with 'the sentiment hope', reinforcing the contrast with an erudite quotation from Thucydides. On this analysis, those who subscribe to hope are akin to the queen in Alice in Wonderland, who practices believing six impossible things before breakfast. I would submit that hovering behind Zachary's perspective is a modernist understanding of knowledge (see this interview), whereby there are 'hard facts' which are intelligible separate from our own emotional reactions to that knowledge; and then there are 'sentiments' and emotions which aren't quite up to scratch epistemologically and are really not suitable attitudes for a grown man to hold (sexism deliberate). From my point of view - which, depending on where you're looking from can either be classified as pre- or post- modern - knowledge can't be separated from our emotional engagement with the world, and hope is a virtue. Explaining that is the burden of this essay. But before going further I would want to emphasise the point which Zachary explicitly downplayed - my remark that I share in a 'juvenile wish to see big explosions' and, more strongly, 'a deeply rooted hatred for the present order and a wish to see it destroyed'. I do have those feelings in me, and they are not trivial. I also have a horror of human suffering (it's a part of what drives the hatred) so when I contemplate possible futures I can become greatly dispirited. What these arguments are really about, for me, is precisely an analysis of those parts of my nature and perspective - so whenever I talk about a 'doomer', or a 'doomer perspective' it should be understood that I am talking about an aspect of myself - I'm not wanting to set somebody else up for target practice. I find much of the argumentation proffered by 'doomers' convincing (in particular, I'm persuaded that we are most likely to experience an abrupt crash due to above-ground factors) - yet what gnaws away at me is also a sense that the doomer perspective hasn't captured the whole truth - and that what the doomer perspective has missed is of tremendous and vital import.

So: on with what I want to say today.

It seems to me that in Peak Oil circles there are often two sorts of repeating arguments. The first we might call 'anti-cornucopian' - this is all about persuading people that Peak Oil is real, that it is serious, that it stands up to intellectual scrutiny in a way that the CERA-style analysis just doesn't. The second we might call 'anti-doomer' - this is an in-house argument and, whilst it seems superficially the same as the first, ie it draws on much of the same material, it tends to get much more emotionally heated. I think we can put these attitudes on a spectrum, and we can label three hypothetical positions on that spectrum A, B and C:


With regard to Peak Oil, A says 'there is no problem' and effectively does not see the same things as B and C; B says 'there is a problem that's likely to take these sorts of shapes'; C says 'there is a problem and it will take this pattern'. And there are of course a vast number of different positions on the spectrum possible.

What I want to draw out is that, in argument with A, B and C would make exactly the same arguments - they would draw on the same analysis, the same geological investigations, the same historically observed data. There is, in short, a great deal of common ground between B and C; they would, it seems to me, precisely share what Zachary describes as a 'logical analysis of the facts'. Yet there is nothing to stop B and C having an intense argument about what will happen in the future - and from my point of view this describes many of the arguments in the comment threads at the Oil Drum (a bit fewer than there used to be and, I should confess, I don't tend to read the comment threads that often these days so this might be completely out of date. I'm sure people will know what I'm describing though.)

At this point it would be worth unpacking my definition: "The doomer perspective seems most characterised by an insistence that the future must take a particular shape, one constrained by the laws of physics and envisioning a necessary decline in human population as the inevitable corollary of the decline in available energy", particularly what I mean by 'constrained by the laws of physics'. The way in which our society has developed over the last several centuries means that the phrase 'the laws of physics' has become something of a totem in popular culture - it matches up to a distinctly Newtonian conception of science which is mechanistic and deterministic, and is heedless of the developments within physics itself over the last century or so. That's what I was getting at, and this is what I think is most problematic in the doomer mentality, the idea that there is no room for free-will and human action to affect the future, and that there is nothing we can do to change the eventual outcome. This is what seems to me to lie behind the different perspectives between B and C - there is a different metaphysical assumption being made by the two parties. One has a deterministic framework; the other sees the future as open and malleable. It's the insistence that our present predicament has only one possible outcome which, for me, defines the doomer perspective - and this is a metaphysical stance, not a scientific one (you could call it a religious standpoint, only one that would not be particularly holy in the Stuart Staniford sense I described before). What is at stake is whether the complex whole which is human life on this planet can adequately be described in a deterministic framework. This is not something which is open to a factual resolution - it's metaphysics not physics - and I'm sure that this is why the debates are interminable, not least because people don't tend to be aware that the conflict IS metaphysical.

Now - that's a debate which I would find it fascinating to pursue, and I'd love to be involved in it, yet it might seem abstract and academic (in the bad senses of those words). I would argue, however, that there is something tremendously important at stake, and to explain this I want to talk about Neil Gaiman's cats - specifically the cats in his story "A dream of a thousand cats". Wikipedia has quite a good little summary: "This is a curious story concerning an inspirational cat with a vision of an alternate reality where cats are huge and humans merely their playthings, tiny servants which groom their bodies and which the cats can kill at their pleasure. She preaches her vision to motley assortments of wild cats around the world, hoping that if she can make enough believe in and dream of this reality, the world will change to conform to their dreams. Although seemingly a complete diversion from the basic story of the Sandman, it in fact illustrates one of the core themes of the series: the idea that reality is shaped in the most literal sense by the dreams, beliefs, and expectations of humans (and, in this case, of other animals as well)."

I'm wholly persuaded that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" so long as 'poetry' is understood in the broadest sense as 'those who tell the stories of the culture', in the way that Homer told the story of Greek civilisation. Gaiman's genius is to give a contemporary demonstration of, and argument for, this truth. What is at issue between the B and C of my spectrum above is, I believe, the shape of the future we can create. There isn't an argument about the 'logical analysis of the facts' - because the facts are not the fundamental matters in dispute. What is in dispute is the vision of the future (which is by definition not an observed fact) and what drives the heat in the argument is, I believe, the sense that if the doomer perspective becomes dominant then that in itself will make the doom more likely. In other words, what is at stake here is the song being sung by the community - the song which, rather like Aslan at the beginning of the Narnia sequence, calls a world into being.

Which brings me (at last) to what I want to say about hope - because I think it is the establishment and maintenance of hope which will allow for a better future to be created. In other words, hope is not primarily a sentiment, a feeling generated within oneself - hope is, instead, a virtue, a practice, a habit which can be cultivated and strengthened. Rather than being 'just a teleological hook to which to tie the end of one's powerdown wishcasting', hope is the essential quality of character that might make the difference between a successful powerdown and civilizational collapse. Seeing hope as a sentiment - and therefore something which can be discarded without cost - is to accept the modernist framework of knowledge and needs to be defended, not just assumed. In the Christian tradition (and in others, this isn't a partisan point) virtues are precisely those powers of character which enable a flourishing community life. They are undoubtedly tied up with the emotions, specifically with the regulation of our emotional reactions to phenomena, but - as Damasio and Nussbaum amongst others have argued - that doesn't diminish their cognitive import one iota.

There are many stories which are used to teach the virtue of hope - one of the most widely known is The Shawshank Redemption - but the one I'd like to touch on is The Lord of the Rings which has an extremely accurate depiction of the virtues, what they are and how they are cultivated and expressed. Of the very few substantial changes made for the film trilogy, only one seemed the product of a crass sensibility. Towards the end of the story, after the great battle outside Minas Tirith (the one where the Riders of Rohan come charging down the hill into the flank of the Orc army, just before the Oliphaunts get involved in the battle) the remaining members of the Fellowship are taking counsel together to determine what to do next. In the book, Gandalf is - as he is consistently - the voice of virtue. He is the one who recommends that the army of men goes to confront Sauron at the gates of Mordor, determined to do as much as possible to help Frodo's journey to Mt Doom. In the film, however, Gandalf is the voice of despair - totally out of character! - and it is Aragorn who is given Gandalf's words to say. However, whoever says it, the point being made is about the importance of acting with hope, even when all seems lost. Holding on to a hope, however slim, gives rise to a different course of action in the present. Gandalf is remarkably sanguine about what is in prospect - almost certain death - yet it is in acting virtuously, and doing what can be done at each moment in time, that their greatness lies. Gandalf says (in the book):
"His Eye is now straining towards us, blind almost to all else that is moving. So we must keep it. Therein lies all our hope. This, then, is my counsel. We have not the Ring. In wisdom or great folly it has been sent away to be destroyed, lest it destroy us. Without it we cannot by force defeat his force. But we must at all costs keep his Eye from his true peril. We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it be... We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless - as we surely shall, if we sit here - and know as we die that no new age shall be."

Which brings me to gunpowder. I would disagree with Oliver Cromwell on all sorts of matters (grin) but there is a phrase attributed to him which I have always loved: "Trust in God, and keep your gunpowder dry". In other words - trust in God, but make all necessary provisions and precautions as your judgement of the situation demands. This is describing hope in the way that I understand it - not as a resistance to a painful acquaintance with the facts, but hope properly born on the far side of realism, after all the facts are intimately known, when questions of character and determination come to the fore. To sum up, I would say that position A above (let's call it the cornucopian) says: "there is no enemy, I need no gunpowder"; position C above (the doomer) says "the enemy is coming! light the gunpowder!"; position B - which is where I think we must pursue our future - says "I have my gunpowder primed - and I am quite ready NOT to use it".

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