Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Fermi Paradox as an Exercise in Social Engineering

The Fermi paradox poses some very interesting societal questions which are even more important than the technological ones. Basically, the question is: Will an alien civilization that has developed a high level of technology and mastered a potent source of energy use that power to colonize space? And if so, where are they?

The question that I find more interesting is: What kind of social or political organization would be required to accomplish the task of colonizing the solar system? We were barely able to sustain the American public’s attention long enough to put a man on the moon, and that was more due to hubris over competition with the Russians than any innate pride of discovery or advancement of human civilization. After all, all other voyages of exploration were done for monitory gain or to escape persecution. The British did not hold onto Jamestown despite terrible losses just because, in the words of JFK, ‘it is hard.’ What could amount to a multiple lifetime project would be unsustainable if done by popular consent and voluntary sacrifice, not to mention requiring a change in disposition from a war like economy to one willing to pour ones energies into a project of this scale.

To do this would require an absolute authority comparable to the Egyptian pharaohs’ building of the pyramids. The boss says it, it gets done. I wonder if this is possible on a planetary, not just a national, scale? If some other civilization ‘out there’ developed a society governed by a technological elite where the masses of farmers, craftsmen and engineers just did what they were told, instead of a self gratifying civilization manipulated by unenlightened self interest, maybe it would be possible. Of course, we did not evolve that way and would probably consider such a culture fascist and its citizens slaves laboring in a hive if we were to encounter them. What they would think of us is anybody’s guess. That may make great science fiction, but it’s really the only way a project of this scale could be undertaken.

It is safe to say that evolution operates on other worlds as it does on ours. So we can imagine a lot of social structures that alien races may evolve into, but that doesn’t make them possible. Through random mutation and selection, a form of cooperation has evolved on our planet, but that’s a very complicated phenomenon. Prior to the evolution of population centers dependent upon farming and animal as well as human labor, humans apparently lived in small extended families of 25 to 30 or so members. Somewhere along the line we evolved the ability to psychologically index and manage a larger body of people, around 250 or 300. That’s the average village. Seemingly magically, at that point we were able to diversify functions and greatly improve efficiency. But it also required a greater level of order and control and a much more complicated culture with stricter rules, harsh punishments and ruling classes. We lost the Garden of Eden, but we gained civilization.

One somewhat popular theory (world systems theory) states that human social behavior is shaped by ecological and economic factors. A culture evolves according to what the population needs to do to eat and live. People then invent mythologies and religions to reinforce and teach the underlying structure of their civilizations (all subconsciously, of course.) For example, ancient Chinese culture rose or fell on the state of its irrigation systems. Since it was imperative for the full functioning of the society for the canals and dams to be working correctly, it was also imperative for individual members of the population to fulfill each his own role in the economics of irrigation. Mobility was a detriment to the system. Farmers had to farm. Engineers had to design complex canals, terraces and dams, and etc. all the way up to the emperor. So, a system of philosophy evolved in Confucianism to enforce the idea that you are assigned your role on earth by heaven. Your highest goal on earth is to faithfully fulfill the duties of the role into which you were born. (A similar example is the Protestant work ethic, which evolved during the English industrial revolution. Factory owners needed thrifty, sober, hard working factory workers, and the local religion obliged with sermons on sobriety and hard work.)

Let us assume that an alien species decided to forge out into space and colonize other worlds. Under what circumstances would an ET civilization decide to do this? Would this be a spontaneous democratic decision or the decision of an oligarchy? If the former, then what evolutionary pressures would produce this trait? According to evolution, for a mutation to be selected it must increase the fitness of the individual possessing it. That’s the only requirement. Evolution does not operate on the group level. A gene for massive group efforts that benefit a small segment of the population several generations hence is not likely to be selected.

If the latter, then we are back to a ruling benevolent elite in control of a domesticated lower class. Incidentally, a trait for following a charismatic leader does increase the fitness of the individual. If you play by the rules you are allowed to live and pass on those ‘sheeple’ genes to your descendents. If you are particularly aggressive, you are eliminated or, if you happen to be a part of the ruling elite, you may become emperor some day and pass on those Caesar genes (also true if you happen to be lucky enough to win an insurrection. You can establish the next ruling elite.) We have been evolving as city dwellers for only about 10,000 years. Apparently this has not been enough time to fully domesticate humans into autocratic but benevolent elites ruling over submissive and obedient workers. Too bad we stumbled upon the ‘oil yolk’ now instead of in ten or twenty more thousand years. Our descendents might have evolved into a culture able to use it wisely.

If you think that an enlightened group of learned individuals (a technological, intellectual oligarchy) might be able to instruct the remaining population and make them understand and, therefore, change their behavior, then you are incredibly na├»ve. The Mensa Club and other ‘think tanks’ believed that world leaders would consult them in issues requiring a high IQ response. Of course, world leaders don’t want a resolution to the species’ burning issues. World leaders want to remain world leaders, thank you very much. You can keep your tank of brains to yourself.

Can we imagine an ET civilization where this would be different? Sure. But we would still expect them to have a philosopher king. Common people (and ET’s) everywhere would have common problems to deal with. It would be much easier for them to just follow their leaders than to think for themselves. Mass populations that do think for themselves tend to become factious, not harmonious. If people come in from the fields to protest the government, then nobody gets fed. This is what mass manipulation and propaganda are all about. Our perfect civilization would be massively bureaucratic.

Any ET civilization would have to evolve a natural ability to cooperate (or to obediently accept programs mandated to them.) Since the laws of evolution presumably apply on every other world just like they do on ours, billions of years of evolution are going to produce creatures that preserve themselves, their family and perhaps their extended family or their village (what we see on this planet.) Any individual beyond that small circle is a competitor, not a potential partner. To create a society based on cooperation, division of labor, etc, beyond that you need coercion (laws plus enforcement, international treaties, wars) or propaganda (religion or nationalism.) Or both.

Look at the earliest legal systems from Mesopotamia. They deal with boundary marker placement, proper weights and measures, clashes between farmers and herders, taxes and the penalties for their neglect. Can we imagine a civilization that evolved to conduct fair and even transactions with everyone they met, generously and voluntarily fund their government and treat every stranger as an honest friend? Evolution pretty much guarantees against it. Someone else will evolve to take advantage of gullible people like this. ET’s will have their own ‘E.T.’ Barnum’s.

To build anything (a dam, a bridge, an ocean liner or a space ship) takes an infrastructure. Steel and aluminum don’t refine themselves. Copper wire doesn’t leap from the ground. Dry docks aren’t built by forces of nature. You need miners, smelters, ship builders and riggers. You need transportation networks and farmers to grow the food to feed the people to smelt the steel to roll it into usable products. You need engineers, not to mention the long history of philosophical development and experimentation necessary to provide the engineering expertise to design such a thing and creative vision to imagine it in the first place, plus the trades and training necessary to build it and the will and imagination of the ruling class to authorize it. All of these workers need housing, food, schools for their families, gas for their lawn mowers, local sports arenas and the bar up the street. And all of these things need a similar support structure, et cetera. No, it takes a village to build a space ship.

The question really is: Is it possible for a culture to evolve that is creative enough to invent the structure required to colonize space but also cooperative enough to do it? It is certainly possible to imagine, but that society would still be extremely foreign to us, perhaps even abhorrent.

If you are going to tell the farmers that they need to grow food to support an effort to establish permanent settlements in the solar system for, what, maybe one percent of the current population? Yes, but some day your descendents will live among the stars. Well, not your descendents, of course. Just the descendents of someone who lives in the ET equivalent of Washington. What is his incentive to do so?

Evolution, which we can safely assume works the same way on other worlds as it does on ours, only operates on individuals, not on groups. So any randomly mutated trait that benefits that one individual and can be passed on to its offspring gets selected. Some people have pointed out that hives work together for the good of the group. But members of a hive are not individuals since they derive their genetics from one fertilized egg laying machine (cruelly referred to as a queen.) It is more appropriate to consider them cells in a single organism than individuals that could evolve by themselves and pass on independent genes to their own offspring. This is not possible. A hive species of intelligent individuals is unlikely due to physical constraints. (I wouldn’t want to be that queen.)

One other possibility is a species that reproduced asexually. This is nearly as good as a hive since every member is identical and traces her origin back to one distant matriarch. An individual that mutated to think in terms of the group instead of the individual, and then flooded her niche with copies of herself, crowding out more selfish members, could easily conceive of space travel and the need to work together to colonize other worlds. Unfortunately there are health issues involved with asexually reproducing species that make them impractical. Gene mixing through sexual reproduction is more robust.

But if it was possible to create such a society, it could work, even though these possibilities appear pretty weird to us. We want our independence but we want a massively coordinated and self less engineering and social experiment as well.

In short, I don’t think you can have this level of cooperation and the American Dream at the same time.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Be Careful What You Ask For…

…you might get it, as the saying goes. There is much discussion these days about the impending collapse of civilization, along with ample evidence to support this inevitability and legions of well engineered and self evident suggestions guaranteed to avert or mitigate said disaster. I have read many articles and seen several documentaries which say something to the effect, ‘If people were made to understand X, then they would surely do Y.’ X is allowed to be any of a set of a priori assumptions about the universe, such as ‘This or that technology will save us’, ‘The moon is a sponge of green cheese saturated with Helium-3’ or the equally ludicrous ‘Oil enters the earth’s crust through a white hole connected via pipeline to a black hole in an alternately fueled universe entirely composed of hydrocarbons.’

Conversely, other candidates for argument X include, ‘We are all doomed, anyway’, ‘The cheap energy carnival is caput’ and the ever popular ‘It’s all a hoax propagated upon us by THEM.’ (Being interested in anthropology, I would definitely like to know more about those THEM. Maybe an ethnography of the Bilderberg Group would make a good read. What sorts of islands do they prefer for their post apocalyptic slave labor camps? How many cases of Russian caviar must each bomb shelter contain? Where do I send my request for membership? But I digress.)

The Y portion of the equation is populated with ideas guaranteed to fix the problem. Things like, ‘Laminate Arizona with solar panels’, ‘Grow legumes in that spot in your back yard where you used to change the oil in your riding mower’, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die off’ and ‘Just keep drilling until the drill bit melts.’ Dick Cheney’s favorite, I might add. Personally I prefer, ‘Take a stick of petroleum wax and apply directly to the forehead.’ Why not? It works just as well for headaches.

The problem is that people are notoriously reticent to change their opinions, let alone their behavior, when someone pretending to know more than they do tells them how to behave. Like the old saying goes, People who think they know it all really make life miserable for those of us who do. Jimmy Carter couldn’t even get the conversation going thirty years ago, let alone outline his own plan Y, and that was when the memory of gas lines was still fresh in our minds. Arguments like those outlined above (admittedly presented in a Mad Libs format) have more to do with social engineering than any other kind of engineering. The jist of these arguments seems to be, ‘If everyone just does what I say, everything will be fine.’ This line of reasoning is always flawless to the reasoner, if nobody else.

Let us consider a thought experiment. Suppose that you had in your possession the absolute best plan for the post oil future of mankind. Your muse, higher power or perhaps a fortune cookie laid it out for you in blinding alacrity. You cannot convince anyone to espouse your wonderful plan because, well, because people are not hotwired that way (see above.) Now, for the sake of the thought experiment let us further suppose that you are the supreme ruler of the world (why not? If talk is cheap, than surely thought must be nearly worthless.) You are either a philosopher king with absolute authority and power as well as a perfect, selfless and incorruptible grasp of what is right and wrong or a member of a beneficent and like minded oligarchy. More on that later.

So you create your five year plan-oops, I mean absolute best plan for humanity, and implement it. To do this you have to just plain force people to do what you know is right, gosh darn it. You organize work camps-no, that’s not right. Living camps-no, that’s not right, either. I know. Fun camps where people can live while laminating Arizona or blasting off to the moon to mine magic beans or whatever. Other segments of the population are busy growing food on the strips of land between the rail road tracks of the mass transit systems that they are also building from the left over corn stalks.

If there are too many people for all of the available farm land, minus that used for bio diesel, well, you are the king of the world. You can enforce population control (that sounds better than the more fascist ‘depopulation’) via some sort of technique that you are rather nebulous about and don’t really want to discuss. A smaller human footprint with fewer useless eaters (got to get a better phrase for that one. Maybe later) will benefit mankind in the long run. It will be like culling the herds. Some of our grandchildren will live in a technological world with mass transit and Disney World, only not as many. You are willing to make this sacrifice even though the world will despise you and place your name at the head of all lists of tyrants. What else can you do? You are insuring that there will be a (smaller) human population in the future to hate you.

I think you can see from this thought experiment that the one thing that might stand a chance of actually insuring a bright future for the earth and for some members of the human race, as opposed to obliteration for all, is the very thing that we fear the most. Big Brother, through some shadowy secret society, creating a New World Order for a privileged elite, whereas the rest of humanity (the superfluous part) is culled from the herd or placed into labor camps. Come to think of it, if one super rich person consumes as much resources as one thousand of the poorest, wouldn’t we get more bang for the buck were we to ‘depopulate’ that one person? Better not go there. I’m sure Henry Kissinger would not be impressed by this analysis.

Of course, I don’t want to see this happen, nor do I believe that it will actually happen. Even if it might work and even if it would be less cruel than what is actually going to happen, you will never get a secretive group of social engineers, no matter how shadowy, to go along with it. Not because it is too horrible, we are talking about mass euthanasia, after all, but because of the ‘If X, then Y’ dilemma above. You just can’t get a group of people working together toward some single goal, no matter how important, unless you are the king of the universe. Herding cats comes to mind. Not to mention the fact that this is far beyond anything that Alexander the Great attempted in his Hellenization of the mid east. Even Sargon II did not engage in what we today call ‘ethnic cleansing.’ He only relocated the population in an attempt to control them.

I personally don’t believe that there is any sort of secret society ruling the world, not because someone might not wish for this to happen or even attempt to make it happen, but because he will never get that many people to agree to any single master plan. Philosopher kings are in short supply, you know. Philosopher kings with standing armies even less so. Just look into any town zoning board meeting. Your belief in secret societies ruling the world will collapse faster than western hegemony. Though it does make for a good conspiracy theory.

Since making a concerted effort to decrease the surplus population (Dickens’ reference intentional) and to conserve is too hideous to contemplate, then that leaves collapse. Nature will do all that for us, in other words. She can be the bitch that killed off most of the population. She’s done it before and doesn’t appear to mind.

So what might that entail? At the risk of sounding like our last legitimately elected president, it all depends on what the definition of the word ‘collapse’ is. Unless something catastrophic happens I expect to see the United States continue to weaken, just like it has since the 70’s, and then simply crack up. What has been called ‘the Balkanization of the United States.’ Until that time, there will undoubtedly be a patchwork of government run soup kitchens, under bridge condos, clever tax rebates and Bush bergs sprouting up everywhere, complete with moon shine stills, a booming sex trade and pot patches strangely ignored by the local strongmen. You’d be amazed at what you might come across in national forests. Just watch out for the booby traps.

The media will tell those of us with radios and TV’s how well things are going, and they will be true. Some segments of the economy will be functioning, albeit at an increasingly smaller and smaller pace all the time. The rich will stay just ahead of the oil supply. The poor will be ignored, as usual. At least they are not being ‘culled.’ Or, if you notice them at all, you will assume that this is just a problem in your area. After all, everywhere else is doing better, right? They will tell you this right up to the point where static is all you pick up on the air waves. The haves will continue to have and the rest of us will continue to not count. Depopulation will occur right before our eyes and we will never see it. David Copperfield does social engineering. Collapse, in short, will be banal. How can I be so sure? Because it is happening right now.

I often hear people compare the decline of this empire to the fall of the Roman Empire. What they miss is that Rome didn’t really ‘fall’ in any sense of the word. At least not during the fifth or sixth centuries, when it is usually considered to have done so. Rome was downsized when the emperor Constantine wrote off the western empire in the forth century, with all of its red ink, pesky barbarians and high military expenses, and created a new city in the eastern empire (which he modestly named after himself, by the way. It is good to be emperor, philosopher king or otherwise.) The eastern, Byzantine Empire went on strong for another thousand years. The western empire just did not have the good graces to realize that it was doomed for a few more centuries. I think a similar trend will occur here with wealthier areas consolidating and disavowing any knowledge of poorer ones. This will give the illusion that everything is OK in that empire while the rest of the world falls apart. If I don’t see you, then you are not there.

I expect to see California secede from the union at some time in the future, probably merging with Mexico. It is something like the nineteenth largest economy in the world and has its own supply of oil, food and movie stars. Once it realizes that the federal government has no more Jedi mind tricks with which to control it, California will flip a dismissive avocado in our direction and go it alone. My native Connecticut will rejoin a northeastern block from perhaps Philadelphia to southern Maine. The southern states never really accepted defeat, so any appearance of political kinship between them and the rest of the country over the last one and a half centuries was merely cosmetic, anyway. And the remainder of North America? Well, go ahead and rebel amongst yourselves, will you? Just keep away from my pot plants. Instead of going backwards, as some people suggest, I expect civilization to simply shed what it can no longer sustain as rapidly as Greenland sheds icebergs.

Every year I go to the local agricultural fairs in eastern Connecticut and muster up some hope that at least some people out there will actually know what to do with seeds, tools and livestock. Those people are called ‘farmers.’ Those of us who talk about permaculture and backyard farming obviously have never gotten manure on our shoes. I look at the fairground stalls (you have to go past the midway) and marvel at the people who keep alive the small farm, raise rabbits, can vegetables and show horses right here in snooty, urbane Connecticut. How well will they survive in the post peak compost heap? I wish them well and hope they remember us kindly.

And Me? I have a little square of land in my back yard where I used to change the oil in my riding mower. I fill it with weeds and a few cucumbers each summer. They make good pickles. Being not much use in the sex trade I have already checked out my Fodor’s guide for the homeless and staked out my place under the bridge.

Say, while we are on the subject of social engineering, how many anthropologists does it take to change a light bulb? Why, none, of course. We just study the light bulb tribes objectively in the interest of scientific inquiry, without intervention. If we did get involved, though, we’d need a linguist to translate their language, an ethnographer to record their oral traditions, a medical anthropologist to, you know, ‘discuss health issues’ with them and several hundred grad students to keep notes. Oh, and don’t forget the social workers (and soldiers) to assist in their ‘relocation’ when oil is discovered under Lightbulbia.

Creative Living Arrangements

There is a lot of talk these days about making different arrangements as the economy continues to decline, and even accelerate, over the next several years and decades. Dick Cheney assures us that the American way of life is ‘non-negotiable.’ I guess that means that we can just sit back and watch it drain away, grain by grain, like some thermodynamic hour glass. Since we can no longer negotiate the steady passage of time and entropy (when could we ever?) we must ‘make other arrangements.’

What might those other arrangements be? Some people have suggested that the twentieth century will run in reverse as each of the more expensive components of our lives becomes prohibitively expensive. First, air travel goes away, followed by no longer cheap gadgets, then fast cars, fast food, all but rudimentary health care until we are left driving our Ramblers home from our second jobs just in time to catch The Honeymooners on our black and white TVs. It will be the Big Crunch following the twentieth century’s consumerist Big Bang, only not chronicled as such by any social or political commentators. Our spacious living arrangements will collapse and grow closer and closer to those around us until we are forced to rely on our neighbors and family members to survive.

But why did we build suburbia in the first place? Because we can’t stand living near other people. That’s right. We are anti social. Or at least anti large society. Forget communes. Forget bands of Pilgrims clinging to their bibles and sea tossed boats while searching for the New Jerusalem. Forget Shangri-La, El Dorado, Teaming Masses, Workers’ Paradises, Peoples’ Republics, Noble Savages and Enlightened Self Interested People (sorry. I haven’t gotten a clever sounding title for those yet.)

Forget permaculture communities (back in the old days these were called ‘towns.’) Forget George Bailey and his “…your money is in Bill’s house, and your money is in Fred’s house…” We’re all just happy neighbors paying each others’ bank account interest with our safe and secure fixed rate mortgages, while building a better world for our children, right? Not on your life.

People have a really hard time living close to other people. And not just Americans, either. It was true in the very old days when our ancestors first experimented with agricultural communities. They had to psychologically deal with such abrasive problems as division of labor, crowded living conditions, sod busters vs. ranchers, fair market values for bartered commodities, inequalities between rich and poor, and “Hey, who moved my boundary stone?” types of complaints, etc. And in all of this mischief, people were in closer proximity that they were accustomed. Much closer.

Your average hunter gatherer living in his Edenic community had a population density of about one person per square mile. This does not mean that he was five thousand two hundred eighty feet away from his closest neighbor, of course, but it does mean that there were a lot fewer people rattling around in his social zone. With farming communities and villages, that number got a lot bigger. Hunter gatherers are not as bucolic as some might think. They are as violent as anybody else (more, actually) but their population is sparser and so the opportunities for friction fewer, though sometimes dramatic when they do occur. As they are compressed together into villages of farmers, herders and tradesmen, pressures build up generating a lot of heat. Conflicts are unavoidable. Skills to deal with them are non existent.

Early people dealt with these problems with rules, religions and God dispensed legal codes. From the Code of Hammurabi to your local zoning board, legal systems have evolved to force people to do what they can’t do naturally: get along. Just do what you are told and you can be a nice villager. We will even give you some wheat, no?

For the past hundred years or so, prosperous human populations have been expanding, each person growing farther and farther away from every other person in his universe like galaxies stretched on a rubber sheet. Maybe we are subconsciously trying to regain that ‘one person per square mile’ perfect proportion. Our gadgets and technology should be able to give us the benefits of civilization and the psychological distance of primitives. I’ll stay in my cave, you stay in yours, and we’ll just text each other. Why, it’s the best of both worlds! Nice work if you can get it.

I always loved the Carrousel of Progress in the 1965 New York World’s Fair, now permanently housed at Disneyland (Walt Disney World in Orlando has one, too.) You may remember it. There is a central circular theatre with fixed stages and seats arranged in a mobile ring around the central theatre. The audience sees a five minute show and then the auditorium portion revolves to the next theatre, taking the audience with it.

Each little show captures a slice of American rural life in the twentieth century. In the earlier ones, life is depicted in small communities where family members are making their own costumes for local masquerade and Halloween parties and the father talks about going down to the drug store for a sarsaparilla. Later, with the introduction of electric appliances and ‘the rat race’, local activities seem to just drop away, making the earlier ones look quaint. The end depicts a modern world, mostly centered on video games and gadgets, with little reference to an outside world at all. Except, of course, that it contains ‘a great big beautiful tomorrow…’

So what exactly will happen if we spin our carrousel backwards? We will find that, like horses, progress does not like to go into reverse. We cannot shrink our houses or our mortgages. We cannot easily move back to mill towns and cities and rebuild trolleys and put up theatres, diners and five and dimes in the center square. When I was a child my mother would bring me to doctors in the eastern Connecticut city where we lived. They had their practices (and also lived, for all I knew) in the upstairs offices above businesses in the center of town. We actually lived slightly outside of the city by that time, but most of the activity was still down town. It really was like Bedford Falls.

As the carrousel goes in reverse, I expect soon we will see more and more adult children moving back in with their parents. This happens already. A friend of mine had to allow her daughter, son-in-law and two children to move back in with them so they would not loose their house. Imagine that for a living arrangement? They went from three people to seven over night. I expect this to get a lot more common.

Do you have borders? No? How about empty rooms in your house? That McMansion is mostly empty. You could easily take someone in on a weekly or monthly basis. Of course, you should know something about the person you are renting a room to. So now you will have to know more about your community and you neighbors. You will need to develop a network of trust and a source of information. “So-and-so needs to rent a room? Is he trustworthy? Oh, a cousin of yours, huh? Is he willing to do some work around the house? No? Well, the room will cost more, then. Just don’t move my boundary stone.”

We will have to learn what it means to be in a community. Grudgingly, of course, since we built suburbia to get away from community in the first place. Maybe we are in the new age of community re-evolution, like those early Holocene hunter gatherers trying to figure out how to live in villages without killing each other. Well, they did it, why can’t we? We just need to get out of our caves, abandon our lifeless iPods and say hello to our neighbors. Oh, and whip up a nice divine Code of Conduct, while you’re at it.

Who knows? We may even start making our own Halloween costumes again.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Musical Chairs (2/7/07)

We are all playing a game of musical chairs with the world’s oil supply. Every time the price of oil goes up five dollars or so, one chair gets moved away and someone, or some entire country, is politely escorted out of the oil game. Just kidding about the politely part.

Since my country, the United States of America, actually consists of two societal decks not quite randomly shuffled together, we actually have our own first world and third world coexisting in parallel universes. There is a dividing line above which you are affluent and below which you are poor. We used to designate a section as ‘middle class’, which sandwiched in nicely between first class and the cattle cars in the rear, but that distinction is going away. We just can’t afford it anymore. Sorry.

Each time an oil shock, a hurricane, a tornado, an energy adjustment on our electric bill, an increase in college tuition, health insurance or an inflation wedgie hikes up our pants more tightly against our nether regions, someone slips below that line. Someone who was struggling to survive now struggles but does not survive. Someone who was struggling to get by now struggles to survive and the rest of us tighten our belts. When the dust settles, those of us still standing reasonably well sigh in relief and exclaim, “Well, xx dollar a barrel oil isn’t that bad, is it? After all, the economy is still making that buzzing and sparking noise that means its working, right?”

I discovered Peak Oil in the summer of 2003. I had just installed a new efficient oil fired HVAC system in my house the year before. Boy did I back the wrong horse. I did ask Mr. Oil Man about exotic things like heat pumps and wood furnaces, over concern for some possible future energy problems that might occur some time down the line eventually by and by. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “With a Bush in the white house, we’ll always have plenty of oil.” The wisdom of that false association is in serious doubt today.

So, what can an average baby boomer like myself expect of the near future? Being a reasonable and rational human being, I like to know what my options are so I can plan for them adequately. Peak Oil, I am informed, actually occurred over a year ago and we are starting to more than wobble on the edge of that path of civilization cut into the cliffside of resource availability. The path narrows and fewer and fewer of us will be able to walk abreast along it for much longer. The view is great, by the way.

Having read all of the literature, insulated my house and replaced all of the windows with energy efficient ones, including that spray foam stuff you can squirt between the shims and the window frames, I am wondering what to expect next? Should I install photovoltaic cells on my rooftop? Should I begin amassing stockpiles of condoms and vodka? Salt might be a reasonable thing to have plenty of in the post peakalyptic world. I hear you can trade a tablespoon of salt for some meat or sexual favor. Well, maybe not, but it sounds good on paper. Will we enter the horrifying world of Mad Max? More likely it will be the desperate world of an Astonished Max as things get worse and that imaginary event horizon between impoverished and affluent creeps inexorably in our direction. Prepare to be politely escorted across that line. Just kidding about the politely part.

To adequately plan, or even to futilely plan for that matter, one must know what to expect. In other words, what is the worst case scenario, the best case scenario and what can one reasonably plan for? Well, the worst case scenario is too horrifying to consider. And here it is: That line between starvation and affluence rockets directly to the ninety ninth percentile and most of us are politely escorted out of the game. Just kidding-well, you get the idea.

The elites of our society, as is true of all elites everywhere and at all times, hold onto their positions. Paris Hilton will not wear a gunny sack, at least not involuntarily, and Brittany Spears will not want for clean underwear, should she want it at all, that is. If we do engage in oil wars, they will only have the effect of destroying large segments of the population but not providing any more oil for any more people. There will be a scramble to keep some framework of economic structure going at whatever cost. Even with dwindling supplies and a wealthy class that is only out for themselves, you still need some functioning peasant class to provide the goods and services for the noble born. Futuristic robots will not tend the fields and pour the wine for the idle rich. The poor you always have with you. And for good reason. Someone has to do the work.

The Amish and some Amazonian tribes people living comfortably away from missionaries and iPods won’t notice a thing. Except for the odd weather, that is, and the fact that it seems to be a lot quieter for some reason. Few people will be interred in Halliburton brand concentration camps, except as spontaneous communities of homeless people. The Federal government will be lucky to keep the lights on, let alone exercise any kind of jurisdiction over any kind of Orwellian state. Think ‘the Balkanization of North America’ meets Gilligan’s Island. The rest of us (if you are reading this, you are probably one of ‘us’) will be better occupied building shelters out of highway billboards and cutting up telephone poles for firewood, while looking longingly forward to our evening meal of rat tartare.

The good news is that this only applies to the survivors.

Well, that was pleasant. How about the best case scenario? In the best case, things will only gradually get worse. The so called ‘soft landing’ scenario, though the difference between a recession and a depression depends entirely upon which side of that imaginary line you have been escorted to, politely or otherwise.

With each increase, each chair removed from the game, people will have less to spend and, therefore, they will spend less. The airline industry becomes, as it was originally, a plaything for the rich. People in rural communities are forced together. There is a resurgence in local activities like dances and socials at the local grange hall. People carpool with their neighbors, after being properly introduced, of course. Church attendance increases along with Sunday picnics, quilting, canning, gardening, local sports and live theatre. Boy and girl scouts and 4-H clubs become more than quaint childhood distractions. These things happen gradually until, suddenly, they are cool again. As we know, the invention is ninety nine percent PR. Forget about that perspiration stuff. It’s all about appearances. Once we are forced to live together, it will become fashionable again. Kind of like lava lamps. Who would have thought that they would be in style again? Well, a coup in the driveway, chicken coop, that is, may be the new way to keep up with the Joneses.

Local diploma mills, like the southern New England state university where I work, may remember that they were originally agricultural land grant institutions long before they had cooperative ventures with the likes of United Technologies, Pfizer and the Department of Defense. They might start offering weekend classes on gardening, raising chickens and rabbits, tanning and making your own real for real jam from berries you picked yourself from these things called bushes.

The bad news is that this only applies to the survivors.

My fear is that something in between will happen. Things will continue to get more expensive and worldwide tensions will rise as they have since the time of John the Evangelist. It will happen fast enough to be noticeable but not fast enough to prompt people to do anything reasonable like take any kind of action or make preparations. That line will keep creeping up until there is a snap. People like to use the words ‘tipping point’ today, as if our society is playing see-saw with the elements of nature. This is going to be more like the tipping point that happens when a speeding car encounters a rock wall. Guess who tips?

The people in my country, I am afraid to say, have somehow gotten the impression that we deserve the finest things in life, no matter from where, or from whom, we get them. The last president to tell the American people to stop acting like spoiled brats and to take some responsibility for our lives was replaced by an actor. Point taken. All subsequent politicians from then on understood that the American people wish for entertainment, not reality.

When the snap finally comes the audience will not like how the film ends. In this case, it would not be wise to be a member of a community where you are ‘making do’ while the surrounding tribes are starving, scrambling for scapegoats and looking for some excuse to do what they’ve been doing all along, anyway, just not so obviously. That is, take for themselves at the expense of others. Mad Max is just hungry and self insufficient, after all. And he may have a gun.

There is an old saying. Those who will not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. This is usually uttered by someone who has some pet lesson of his own that he wants to lend credibility to, accompanied by knowing looks and ominous music. Well, I am no exception. Only I like to cut to the chase. I feel that, if history teaches lessons, then what is the greatest lesson? Of all of history’s textbook cases that we have been offered from Herodotus to Doris Kerns Goodwin, what is the one that I should not leave the classroom without learning?

The greatest lesson of history is that people don’t learn lessons from history. Interestingly, the people who learn this lesson are the most successful, provided they can pack up their wagons and escape just before the tar pot and feather pillow comes out, that is. Politicians, snake oil salesman, shale oil salesman, hydrogen salesman, Oh, a whole host of charlatans selling something will grapple with each other to get our attention first, thus squandering our resources and taking our lunch money until it is far past the time when we could have actually done anything to prepare at all. A historian, it seems, is born every minute. Then, when the fresh scent of boiling tar perfumes the air, they will be gone and some other unfortunate, probably someone who used to regularly post on Peak Oil websites, will be blamed for the misfortune. And anyway, we have all this tar. It would be a pity to waste it.

History’s great lesson, then, is that we are all being had. Those of us that aren’t having, that is. As Sweeney Todd sings in the Sondheim musical of the same name, “The history of the world, my sweet--Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!” I think I’ll go back to uttering platitudes and pretending that history has something inspiring to teach me.

So how can we effectively plan? Maybe the best we can do is to brace ourselves for the shock and hope for the best. Pay off our debts. Watch our backs. If we do have it better than others, keep a low profile. Think both more highly and more suspiciously of our fellow man. Make peace with our neighbors. Darken the doors of our local town hall, grange or church. Have an ample supply of clean undergarments, in case Brittany stops by. And keep that salt shaker full.

Of course, while we are waiting, the natural tendency for human beings to joke about their situation will kick in. It is only a matter of time, really, before some crude individual introduces black humor into the Peak Oil debate. After all, people have been making light of bad situations for as long as there have been stand up comics and tragedies to either laugh or cry over. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. So I’ll start.

How many post oil dwellers (PODs) does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to put the pitch pine torch into the empty socket and one to strike flint to tinder.

OK. That was in poor taste. How could I say something like that in the face of such a dire future? Here’s another one. Why did the POD cross the 27 lane super highway? He was out for a leisurely walk. All right. I’ll stop. I promise.

At least, don’t get me started on knock-knock jokes.