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?

September 4, 2009

Tech Monuments as Consumerism and Class War (Scientism 2 of 5)

Filed under: Climate Crisis, Peak Oil, Scientism/Technocracy — Tags: , , — Russell Bangs @ 5:33 am
In post 1 we saw how something like CERN comes about. From the scientistic point of view, society is simply another resource to be mined for its own narrow purposes. In this, it is an extension of modern shallowness and selfishness in general. At the same time it allows science itself to become the prostitute of corporate interests. So it happily works as a slave in the mine it has helped rip open. 
It’s just like the space program. Obscenely expensive toys for overgrown children to play. It’s an extreme version of the high-maintenance hedonist consumer culture. Technicians of physics who want this toy to play with are no different from a suburbanite who just needs a McMansion, a Hummer, a plasma TV.
Do these scientists consider themselves “thinkers” or “artists”? No, they’re just technicians who don’t even produce anything. Any freelance mechanic or carpenter contributes far more social value.
And what would these tinpot Edisons do without the boss man to give them their laboratories and their marching orders? Is it even possible to be a technician without spending one’s life repeatedly bought and sold? All they are is a commodity.
And then we behold an absurd “prestige” project like a particle collider, something which looks like a parody of the Titanic, which itself had made itself farcical before it even sank, what with its absurd rhetoric about being “unsinkable”. If it had been a character in the drama you would know it was going to sink.
Today we are in the age of resource depletion, of Peak Oil. Today all realistic people look at any massive capitalization and think of Ozymandias. CERN, the space program, geoengineering, nuclear power, CCS, Dubai, Las Vegas, Atlanta….these are all one spectrum of hubris. And not even the glorious if fatal Greek pride, but a snivelling, spiritual picayune brat’s pride which seeks to compensate for its puniness and paltriness through big, noisy things. Deep down it’s the same bigger-is-better, flashier-is-better consumerist mindset which got us into this whole mess.
But net entropy declares this is all vanity. We should look at a parking lot full of unsold cars (even a potemkin “market” like cash for clunkers can only go so far), or a high-rise condo with all the units unsold and empty, and then compare a high-tech toy like CERN.
Of course no one really thinks a particle collider or anything that can be learned from it is going to be of any use at all post-Peak Oil. I guess using that money for real scientific investment, say to develop better post-fossil fuel agricultural varieties, isn’t sexy enough for the scienticians.
I fear we cannot afford to waste all this money. Not one cent of it.
I don’t know what kind of science could come of such massive capitalizations which would be beneficial to the non-rich during energy descent.
I’d be willing to bet two things about CERN:
1. It wasn’t funded by private capital. (Costs socialized, including the risk of generating a black hole, however infinitesimal that may be; the guys at Alamogordo thought it theoretically possible the first atom bomb blast would set the atmosphere on fire. At least then there was a war on.)
2. Any benefits will be for the wealthy, any profits private.
As for spending billions to experimentally validate quantum ideas, why? Spiritually, philosophically, aren’t the ideas enough? It’s an insult to the real spirit of science to assume you need billions of dollars for a toy in order to study science. On the contrary, it’s the mark of a creatively sterile technician.
A creative thinker finds all he needs in nature, in the works of the philosophers, in the writings of the mystics, poets, and revolutionaries. Archimedes, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton didn’t need billions worth of technological monstrosities. All they needed was their ideas and some pre-fossil fuel tools. That’s all we need today. (Boscovitch anticipated quantum theory in the 18th century using no special equipment. The idea for black holes also dates to that time.)
The issue becomes especially ridiculous when we consider plummeting net energy and EROEI (energy return on investment). It was Newton who said he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”. And today? We have grasshoppers on the shoulder of the Statue of Liberty, and it costs an astronomical amount to lift them up there.
The “SROI”, science return on investment, is less favorable by now than Peak Oil’s EROI will ever be.
(This provides a good object lesson regarding EROEI and the prospects for tyranny to try to use force to overcome it. All the wealth transfers of corporatism are exercises in not requiring capitalism to earn its keep by actually creating value and generating valid profits. Monumental technology indulgences like the collider or the space program are similar examples of wealth redistribution upward.
So in the same way that ROI is overcome in all these cases through politically enabled embezzlement and theft, they will if they can try to overcome the EROEI ramifications of Peak Oil and resource depletion through direct force: slave labor and repression.)
Even if any of this “investment” actually produced a return, it would go only to the power and wealth structure. If the technology-will-save-us myth ever did come true, it would only be to power elite fortresses while the serfs freeze in the dark.
Do you enjoy the internet? Consider it very useful? In ten years connections probably won’t be available for the non-rich, let alone in libraries.
Of course, it’s possible that things won’t turn out this way. Check out this piece from the Washington Post. The writer is clear on the economic devastation and technological stratification likely to befall us. Yet he’s expecting the power elite, out of some newfound goodness of their hearts never before in evidence, to spread the wealth at their own expense. Suddenly, after trickle down failed everywhere else, every time, it will work this time as simple charity.
Are we going to count upon this?
Do scientism and technology any longer serve man? They do not if they rig up an economy which destroys all meaningful jobs, sets up a totalitarian surveillance system and database, and concentrates all wealth in the hands of a few, who we must then beg to bestow welfare upon the superfluous masses.
Politically, that welfare state can never exist. The rich would never contribute to it. And why would the people be willing to live like that? Free-minded human beings would not be willing.
No, if it were ever possible to beg for welfare from thieves, that would only be because the thief feared the beggar, and that would only be because the beggar was strong enough to be, not a beggar, but an avenger.
These are the inevitable end choices for the technological corporatist state as it enters Peak Oil. Enslavement or revolution.
Technology and capitalism are in the same position. Any good they were going to do they’ve long since done. They now add only delusions, oppression, and waste, and misdirect mankind from truly confronting its problems.
There is no more “innovation”. This economic crisis and Peak Oil prove that once and for all. What we need to innovate is the wisdom to constructively use what we have.
By now it’s obvious, looking at any issue, any problem, what measures could be part of the solution, or could at least help ease the impending suffering, and what just helps build the Tower of Babel higher.
Industrialized civilization will have to devolve regardless of what we do. Every class-war cent we spend on self-indulgent monster toys is not only wasted but a crime against the suffering people of today, and against all the people of the future.
We have no thinkers left, only appendages of machines. The machines themselves produce nothing but oppression. Without the fossil fuel platform they’ll produce only cobwebs.
So much wealth and time wasted……