September 8, 2009

Monuments and Collapse (Scientism 4)

Filed under: Climate Crisis, Corporatism, Peak Oil, Scientism/Technocracy — Tags: , , , — Russell Bangs @ 3:53 am
Some weeks back the NYT Week in Review section ran a good piece on the travails of the CERN Large Hadron Collider. While the media was all over how the 15 year, $9 billion project has been plagued by explosions and magnets on strike, and how it just maybe might be able to start running on 50% power by next year, this was the only piece I saw which delved into the eschatological implications.
The article, by physicist James Glanz, takes its cue from a recent trip to Belize, where as a tourist he visited the ancient Mayan pyramid at Xunantunich. Pondering how the Maya abruptly abandoned this and other monumental sites after spending centuries building them, and contemplating the boondoggle that is CERN, he was driven to the conclusion that “the similarities between the two projects were clear-cut.”
The collapse of the Maya is evidently a mystery to mainstreamers and academics, but not to Glanz’s local guide Albert: they didn’t rotate their crops, and therefore “there was no food”. It’s also not much of a mystery to Peak Oilers who are aware of the agricultural practices of the Maya, how their equivalent of industrial ag led to depleted soil and disastrous erosion. Meanwhile climate change experts explain how the rainfall of that region depends upon a multi-century cycle of the rains falling mostly over the isthmus or further south over the South American landmass. The Maya reached their peak during a favorable rain cycle of hundreds of years; when the rains moved back south, that was the death blow for their already soil-destroying agricultural model.
To compare a recent event, while many people are familiar with how Cuba agriculturally grappled with being cut off from the Soviet oil subsidy, not as many talk about the parallel and opposite experience of North Korea. Cut off from the fossil fuels which powered its particularly fossil-intensive version of monoculture, the North tried to double down, expanding production onto ever more marginal land: hillsides and so on.
Sound familiar from what America’s corn ethanol dementia has been wreaking?
The results were predictable: an erosion disaster which denuded the hills and dumped their debris on what little decent valley soil was left. Who knows how many millions starved in the ensuing famine?
There’s strong evidence that the Maya were also driven to deforest their hillsides to try to cultivate them, with similar results.
In this calamity, as their monumental agriculture failed, that they had to abandon their monumental architecture as well, like the pyramid at Xunantunich, is not surprising. Nor is it a surprise that they lost faith in the religion to which it was built as a shrine.
Similarly, today people are coming to sense that the promises of the progress religion will not be kept. As people lose faith in this creed, they will lose enthusiasm for investment in the monumental shrines of this religion – things like the CERN particle collider, or space travel. That these astronomical things are astronomically expensive, and that the promised results, the SROI (science return on investment) sound ever more gossamer and would take generations to achieve where once great results could be achieved in mere years (and at much less expense), at a time when the world sinks into global depression in direct defiance of the promises of the faith, and as a direct result of the lies of the preachers of that faith, will only render them all the more practically impossible and morally obscene.
One can picture the dismay of the Mayan priests as the people drained away. What can have happened to bring this crisis to our faith? And then many of them must have understood perfectly. Many must have also been plantation owners, or were the hired cadres of the latifundia propagating the age old pious fraud.
So today we see the same bemusement among the priests of scientism. Glanz describes the angst among the physicists over the plight at CERN. He even goes so far as to offer the moral protest that “many other scientists ardently believe that it would be an injustice if the collider were threatened by delays that are miniscule in comparison to the lifetime of the cosmos” (emphasis added).
So in the same way a rich teenager may bewail the cruelty of the world if her parents refuse to spend $50K on her Sweet 16 party instead of only 20, so these scientists are morally entitled to extract infinite billions from the beleaguered workers of the world, giving nothing in return, and are being oppressed if they are denied their entitlement. Glad we got that straight.
This has always been the attitude of the true believers among priesthoods, and we’re not going to see this lobby go away anytime soon if it can also offer the prospect of corporatist profit.
(In that connection, we’re seeing an old front newly opening up again: new prospects for geoengineering are being touted by studies and in the media as the upcoming Copenhagen conference gets a lot of attention, and as people come to realize that domestic legislative efforts like Waxman-Markey are always going to be insufficient to deal with the climate crisis, and as people start to think that maybe they don’t really want to pay to deal with it. This is the happy hunting ground for disaster capitalism, and geoengineering is a classic disaster opportunity.
Of course the people who didn’t want to pay directly through slightly higher energy costs in the short-term, while they’d end up saving money in the longer term, will end up indirectly paying far more for geoengineered corporatism. That in turn will only end up failing to solve the climate disaster while it adds unimaginable new environmental calamities, and how much are those going to cost?
But scientism will get a new playground for awhile.)
As they scratch their heads over the conundrum, academics don’t want to face the truths of Peak Oil, resource depletion, the collapse of exponential debt, so they may focus on ideology and spirit as if they exist in a vacuum. Thus Glanz quotes anthropologist Richard Leventhal to the effect that physical explanations for the Mayan collapse are “beside the point”. Rather, “these multigenerational projects are based upon a strong and ongoing belief system in how the world works”. So it all depends on faith, and faith simply stands or falls on its own, like faith in the stock market. The physical unsustainability of that faith is meaningless.
In truth we know that the spirit, while it can help inspire, can go only so far as the flesh is able. Ideology and its collapse track the sustainability and collapse of the resource base. Explanations which focus only on the spirit are always incomplete at best.
If we look at the Decline and Fall of Rome, we see how insufficient were the predominantly spiritual and character explanations of commentators like Vegetius and Gibbon, how these are really supplements to resource and complexity analyses like that of Joseph Tainter.   
This is of course an extremity of absurdity, this revival of the collapse of pure spirit, but they’re driven to it by the necessity to deny resource depletion and what it is dictating. Instead they appeal to a kind of patriotism, the patriotism of science. The success of something like the Hadron Collider or the colonization of Mars depends upon everyone continuing to religiously believe in it, and exercise that belief by socioeconomically enslaving themselves to it.
And if you question, if you doubt, if you dissent, if you scoff, you are subversive, heretical, unpatriotic, anti-American, treasonous, criminal. The rhetoric isn’t at this level yet, but the attitude is coalescing.
In reality, the spiritual/ideological superstructure and the resource base operate in a dialectical interplay which is driven by the base.
If we have:
A. The physical facts – resource depletion and agricultural failure;
B. The spiritual demoralization and loss of faith;
then we can see how:
A leads to B: the rains, the soil, the oil fails – it means the gods failed;
B leads to A: stupidity, short-sightedness, failure to respect, cherish, revere the land – lead to physical destruction and depletion.
We can see the results of the progress religion, growth fundamentalism, and scientism everywhere today. If resource abundance originally seduced humanity into its profligacy and wastefulness, we have long been unquestioning, voluntary fanatics about it, to the point that even as gods fail everywhere, the faith still holds strong, at least on the surface.
Perhaps the first hairline cracks are appearing where it comes to monumental science projects like CERN. Here the version of the progress faith is the so-called Standard Model. This is the particular detail of the “strong and ongoing belief system” for whose future these particle scientists fear.
The failure of faith here would not be lack of “belief” in the Standard Model as such, but in the propriety, the EROI and SROI of investing endless $ billions to carry out arcane experiments to prove or disprove some abstruse mathematical detail, while so many millions lack jobs and go hungry.
In the end faith in the system depends upon faith in the proposition that the great bulk of the wealth of society should go into the pockets of a handful of men, for their personal amusement and private religious ritual, and that somehow, in some Utopia thousands of years form now, it’ll all trickle down, and our distant descendents will honor us as saints, that we submitted as slaves today, that we believed these promises which were eventually redeemed.
That’s the superstition demanded of us.
The article ends with a piece of boosterism from a CERN spokesman: “I sincerely hope that if the human race has managed to survive” as long into the future as we have come since the Maya, “we will have left a big enough imprint on science that people will not have to speculate on what the priesthood of CERN was up to”.
But even right now we can only “speculate”. What are they up to?


  1. Capitalists claim their system does the best job of addressing Human needs, but it does so only incidentally, as a beneficial side effect of the pursuit of profit. By this logic, any failure to meet needs is prima facie evidence that nothing more can be done. Any problems in the more closely managed economies are seized upon as further confirmation of the impossibility of provisioning resources better than the market can. The capitalist lie is strictly ahistorical and stupid, it ignores the fact that none of the counterexamples have existed free from vicious and constant economic (and sometimes actual) warfare from all sides.

    Let’s put first things first: Human needs must be made the goal, something that capitalism will never do. Along with that goal, actually one of its most integral aspects, is the need to deal with resource constraints. The choice facing us is to either actually adjust in a sensible way, or die a gruesome collective death for the sake of profit.

    Socialism does not have to be a god anymore than capitalism should be. The worthwhile differences are to be found at the levels of analysis and goal-setting, rather than as a new religion onto which weary, frightened survivors of the traumas of capitalism can grasp. On the contrary, everything else takes vigilant work, which we do not claim is a necessary outcome, but at least assert is possible under a different system.

    Comment by James — September 8, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    • Hmmm, the grammar and punctuation in my post are not as good as they could be.

      Comment by James — September 8, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

  2. Well said, James. They use that “prima facie evidence” ploy with their starve-the-beast concept of government. Once you take every agency, strip its powers and gut its budget and staff, you can self-fulfill the claim that “government doesn’t work”.

    Not that I like big government either. But at any size beyond really small, you can’t trust corporations or wealth accumulators to do anything other than attack and destroy, while governments, if run by the right people according to the right ideas, may work for the general good.

    Comment by Russ — September 8, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

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