Originally published in Arthur No. 17 (July, 2005)
Illustration by Arik Roper
“Here and Now” column by Daniel Pinchbeck
“No More Oil, No More Bullshit”
The recent appearance of a sizable excerpt from James Kunstler’s new book in the glossy pages of Rolling Stone may well represent the beginning of a cultural sea change. It is not that the argument presented in The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century is particularly new—in fact, the bulk of it was offered by Thom Hartmann’s The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (1999), as well as World Watch editor Ed Ayre’s God’s Last Offer (1999), among others. The significance is that the mainstream finally finds itself compelled to pay attention to it. What these authors have been telling us is stark and simple: Our current form of mass post-industrial civilization based on fossil fuel consumption and over-use of natural resources is about to end. There is no way to prevent a collapse that may be more or less sudden, and more or less cataclysmic. All we can do is decide what to do in the time that remains to prepare for it.
The reason for this radical and imminent shift is the exhaustion of cheap fuel, causing a continual and irreversible rise in energy prices. In Hubbert’s Peak, Kenneth Duffeyes, a former geologist for the oil corporations, made a convincing argument that we are passing the point of “peak oil,” and the oil that remains underground is exponentially more difficult and expensive to extract. As Kunstler—and Hartmann, and others—report, there is no real replacement for fossil fuels in running our current sprawling, suburbs-based, energy-wasting civilization. The end of cheap oil (accompanied by the almost more worrisome depletion of clean water reserves the world over, as well as the various side effects of accelerated global warming) will cause extraordinarily far-reaching changes in the way life will be lived by all of us, in the near future.
In The Long Emergency, Kunstler takes a hard-nosed look at the consequences of our profligate ways in the last decades. “Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It has a tragic destiny. The psychology of previous investment suggests that we will defend our drive-in utopia long after it has become a terrible liability.” He offers a cogent regional analysis of what America may become in an energy-scarce future, in which social inequity increases, paramilitary activity escalates, and desperate urban ghettos riot at a level exceeding all previous phases of unrest. As sea levels rise by several feet in this century, low-lying cities such as New Orleans may disappear underwater. At the same time, water-scarce regions like the Southwest—and cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas—should become essentially uninhabitable. Along with forced mass-migrations out of unsupportable areas, Kunstler foresees the “end of industrial growth, falling standards of living, economic desperation, declining food production, and domestic political strife,” as well as a probable increase in terrorism.
And yet, as severe as Kunstler’s diagnosis is, his prognosis is not all bad. The massive changes caused by our energy emergency will force community building, re-localization of industry and an ethical revaluing of life, as well as a careful attention to all living processes. The passive consumer-trance of our current age will no longer be possible, as people who want to survive in this new world will have to be fully participatory as well as fluidly adjustable to continual changes in social structure and environment. In the end, Kunstler’s perspective is similar to Hartmann’s, who foresees, in the collapse of the steroid-pumped values of the current dominator culture, a return to the consilient and collaborative life-patterns of indigenous tribal societies. Prolonged, long-distance war such as the current Iraq conflict will, also, soon be a thing of the past: “A point will be reached when the great powers no longer have the means to project their power at a distance,” Kunstler notes. All of our institutions—from schools to government—will have to be reconfigured, downscaled and re-localized to mesh with our new realities. “Social responsibility to the community will be hard to evade,” he writes. “The pervasive and corrosive idea of just being another wage-earning ‘unit’ in a consumer society will be dead.”
Although Kunstler considers this approaching crisis to be a “long emergency,” reaching full-blown form by the middle of the 21st century, there is another possibility. According to this vision, the long emergency may actually turn out to be a short emergency of a year or two, followed by a movement into a vastly different—and far superior—way of thought and action for humanity as a whole. By this alternative perspective, humanity is currently going through an accelerated evolution in consciousness that will culminate in the creation of new social systems and new spiritual possibilities. My own thinking on this subject led me to the study of the outsider hypothesis that considers the Mayan Calendar to be a model of the evolution of consciousness, culminating in the establishment of a harmonic and compassion-based global civilization before the end-date of the Mayan Calendar on December 21, 2012. An excellent video presentation of this point of view, by the artist Ian Lungold, is available at http://www.mayanmajix.com; Carl Johan Calleman’s book The Mayan Calendar and the Transformation of Consciousness is another useful tool for exploring this radical vision. According to their meticulous study of the fractal model of time apparently presented by the Classical Mayans, Lungold and Calleman propose the year 2008 as the point of collapse for the current socioeconomic paradigm, to be superseded by a new form of consciousness and a unified planetary culture in the following years.
A “new form of consciousness” may sound like a specious concept, but it is one that many philosophers and visionaries have proposed, and tried to define, from Ken Wilber to Sri Aurobindo, Carl Jung to Jean Gebser. My perspective is that, as part of this 2012 transition, we are witnessing an integration of the modern rational mindset with the archaic shamanic or esoteric worldview—many people I know seem to be paying closer and closer attention to synchronicities and psychic events that appear in their lives, not in a naive or fuzzily “New Age” way but in a very sophisticated and careful manner. Such a shift is almost impossible to quantify—though the Global Consciousness Project at Princeton University is giving it a good shot, placing random number generators in cities around the Earth and noting significant statistical deviation from normal patterns of randomness after—and even hours before—major world events such as 9/11 or the massive tsunami.
The subjective, psychic, or shamanic aspect of being is only barely alluded to in Kunstler’s analysis of a potentially spooky, Road Warrior-like future (he does propose religion will become more essential to many people, with the melting-down of our current support systems), but it is one that needs to be considered. Dean Radin, Director of the Consciousness Research Laboratory at the University of Nevada, has compiled and analyzed the statistical evidence for “psi” phenomena, presenting the data in his book, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (1997). According to his meticulous study, thousands of experiments in telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance have fulfilled the scientific requirements of verifiability and repeatability, indicating that these phenomena do, in fact, exist, and can be measured. In our current understanding of psychic phenomena, we may be in a similar place as the West was in the 1750s in regards to electricity—the scientists of that time had noticed lightning and static shocks, but had no conception of how to convert this energy into a transformative force for their world. It may be that the transfer to a harmonic world will be accompanied by global psychic experiments focused on planetary healing.
Rather than thinking of a retraction or destruction of human possibilities in an approaching economic collapse, it might be that such an episode would be bracing as well as clarifying, leading to a sudden switch-over of the elites who run our crudely globalized and inequitable world-system. It is worth considering previous epochs of revolutionary change, such as the French Revolution. Before the French Revolution, the Enlightenment philosophers, pamphleteers, and cafe intellectuals of the ancien regime had little clue that they might end up the vanguard of a new social order. Revolutionary moments are mythological and archetypal situations—and we may be closer to such an episode than most of us currently dare to imagine. After all, before 1989, how many people managed to predict or even imagine the sudden and astonishingly peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall? Would the collapse of Wall Street—symbolizing a system of abstract monetary value that is a bit like a parasitical artificial life form feeding on the natural capital of the planet—be any more surprising?
If this alternative hypothesis is correct, the time between now and the approaching change-over represents our singular opportunity to develop alternative paradigms and basic support systems—of food production, alternative energy, new currencies, and so on —that could be applied on increasingly large scales as the mainstream socioeconomic system continues its inevitable entropic decline. The macroscopic utopianism of someone like Buckminster Fuller—who believed humans were fated to succeed on the Earth, designing societies of abundance rather than scarcity—may deserve more of our current attention than the dystopian visions that have become so prevalent, and so popular. At the same time, the pursuit of spirituality may come to seem increasingly less fuzzy and more pragmatically necessary and straightforward. When Yogi Bhaijan —the master of kundalini yoga who died last year—was asked by his disciples to define the true meaning of the long-awaited “Age of Aquarius,” he replied bluntly: “No more bullshit.” His answer may be a mantra for our time.