Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Sermon to the Sharks

The publisher was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of John Michael “The Archdruid” Greer's recently published book The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered. It took me a couple of days to get through the book, which I did although much of the material was not new to me, for the sake of his exposition: John Michael is an erudite and patient writer, good at explaining away the various fallacies around money, energy and the pursuit of everything that bedevil our increasingly morbid industrial civilization. I read and I nodded, and it was not until I arrived at the last chapter, “The Road Ahead” that I started shaking my head, because a paraphrase of the title sneaked into my brain, one that I couldn't shake: Preaching to Sharks: Economics as if the Survival of Economists Mattered. What made it hard to shake was that it was accompanied by this stunning image from Herman Melville's Moby Dick. I relate it here verbatim, for your benefit, because Melville makes better reading than either Greer or I. Enjoy! 
Warning: This is a text dating from 1851 and it does not adhere to contemporary standards of propriety. In particular, it contains coarse ethnic humor. Persons of delicate sensibility... blah blah blah.

From chapter 64, "Stubb's Supper":

... though one or two other like instances might be set down, touching the set terms, places, and occasions, when sharks do most socially congregate, and most hilariously feast; yet is there no conceivable time or occasion when you will find them in such countless numbers, and in gayer or more jovial spirits, than around a dead sperm whale, moored by night to a whaleship at sea. If you have never seen that sight, then suspend your decision about the propriety of devil-worship, and the expediency of conciliating the devil.

... Stubb heeded not the mumblings of the banquet that was going on so nigh him, no more than the sharks heeded the smacking of his own epicurean lips.

"Cook, cook!—where's that old Fleece?" he cried at length, widening his legs still further, as if to form a more secure base for his supper; and, at the same time darting his fork into the dish, as if stabbing with his lance; "cook, you cook!— sail this way, cook!"

The old black, not in any very high glee at having been previously routed from his warm hammock at a most unseasonable hour, came shambling along from his galley, for, like many old blacks, there was something the matter with his knee-pans, which he did not keep well scoured like his other pans; this old Fleece, as they called him, came shuffling and limping along, assisting his step with his tongs, which, after a clumsy fashion, were made of straightened iron hoops; this old Ebony floundered along, and in obedience to the word of command, came to a dead stop on the opposite side of Stubb's sideboard; when, with both hands folded before him, and resting on his two-legged cane, he bowed his arched back still further over, at the same time sideways inclining his head, so as to bring his best ear into play.

"Cook," said Stubb, rapidly lifting a rather reddish morsel to his mouth, "don't you think this steak is rather overdone? You've been beating this steak too much, cook; it's too tender. Don't I always say that to be good, a whale-steak must be tough? There are those sharks now over the side, don't you see they prefer it tough and rare? What a shindy they are kicking up! Cook, go and talk to 'em; tell 'em they are welcome to help themselves civilly, and in moderation, but they must keep quiet. Blast me, if I can hear my own voice. Away, cook, and deliver my message. Here, take this lantern," snatching one from his sideboard; "now then, go and preach to them!"

Sullenly taking the offered lantern, old Fleece limped across the deck to the bulwarks; and then, with one hand drooping his light low over the sea, so as to get a good view of his congregation, with the other hand he solemnly flourished his tongs, and leaning far over the side in a mumbling voice began addressing the sharks, while Stubb, softly crawling behind, overheard all that was said.

"Fellow-critters: I'se ordered here to say dat you must stop dat dam noise dare. You hear? Stop dat dam smackin' ob de lips! Massa Stubb say dat you can fill your dam bellies up to de hatchings, but by Gor! you must stop dat dam racket!"

"Cook," here interposed Stubb, accompanying the word with a sudden slap on the shoulder,—"Cook! why, damn your eyes, you mustn't swear that way when you're preaching. That's no way to convert sinners, Cook!"

"Who dat? Den preach to him yourself," sullenly turning to go.

"No, Cook; go on, go on."

"Well, den, Belubed fellow-critters:"—

"Right!" exclaimed Stubb, approvingly, "coax 'em to it, try that," and Fleece continued.

"Do you is all sharks, and by natur wery woracious, yet I zay to you, fellow-critters, dat dat woraciousness—'top dat dam slappin' ob de tail! How you tink to hear, 'spose you keep up such a dam slapping and bitin' dare?"

"Cook," cried Stubb, collaring him, "I won't have that swearing. Talk to 'em gentlemanly."

Once more the sermon proceeded.

"Your woraciousness, fellow-critters. I don't blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can't be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not'ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now, look here, bred'ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don't be tearin' de blubber out your neighbour's mout, I say. Is not one shark dood right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o' you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts sometimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness of de mout is not to swallar wid, but to bit off de blubber for de small fry ob sharks, dat can't get into de scrouge to help demselves."

"Well done, old Fleece!" cried Stubb, "that's Christianity; go on."

"No use goin' on; de dam willains will keep a scrougin' and slappin' each oder, Massa Stubb; dey don't hear one word; no use a-preaching to such dam g'uttons as you call 'em, till dare bellies is full, and dare bellies is bottomless; and when dey do get 'em full, dey wont hear you den; for den dey sink in de sea, go fast to sleep on de coral, and can't hear noting at all, no more, for eber and eber."

"Upon my soul, I am about of the same opinion; so give the benediction, Fleece, and I'll away to my supper."

Upon this, Fleece, holding both hands over the fishy mob, raised his shrill voice, and cried—

"Cussed fellow-critters! Kick up de damndest row as ever you can; fill your dam bellies 'till dey bust—and den die!"

Elsewhere in the same novel Queequeg, the cannibal harpooner and the narrator's best friend, hops down on the whale-corpse tied alongside their whaling ship and, for exercise, spends a while dispatching the frenzied sharks by stabbing them with a sharp spade around where their brains are presumably located, which, he finds, is the only effective method for shutting them down.

Greer's book comes out at a time when the sharks are indeed ravenous: throughout the world zombie financial institutions, bloated with loans which have gone bad due to a dwindling resource base and a shrinking physical economy, are gorging themselves on free government money, while the governments cannot stop throwing bags of money into their gaping maws for fear of being eaten alive. They seem rather beyond redemption, and Greer acknowledges as much: “When the power of money faces off against the power of violence, money comes out a distant second.” [p. 213]

Books that attempt to look honestly at our contemporary condition often run amok when they attempt to show “the way forward.” What we ought to do is form political coalitions that lock out veto groups, curb the power of corporations, revise the tax code, bring back financial regulations from the 1950s and... so on. This would require reform. However, any reform of a complex system, such as our existing one, involves further investment in social complexity through a wide variety of costly initiatives. And here's the problem: there is no longer either the money or the energy for such initiatives. The default is to just let it collapse, but such an outlook, perfectly reasonable though it is, is generally not regarded as optimistic enough by the people who publish books (New Society Publishers is an exception). Some time ago (during the sustainability movement of the 1970s, which were Greer's formative time) optimistic, reform-minded expositions seemed useful; now they are starting to seem like compulsive anxiety coping behaviors: knock three times on wood, throw a pinch of salt over the left shoulder, mention sustainability and renewables.

One needs better reasons to read Greer than to show concern for the welfare of Western economists, because in all of the preceding chapters he does a through demolition job on their profession—so thorough that it may be more useful to start with fresh kindergartners than to try to reeducate existing economists. The way he does it is engaging enough to make the message palatable even to people who are not particularly concerned with energy or technology or finance, but he can also help dispel the fog for the technically minded people who are in favor of this or that “green” technology which happens to be, more likely than not, a net waste of energy. To explain such notions as “a net waste of energy,” which are counterintuitive for people whose thinking has been conditioned by the availability of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels, Greer delves into thermodynamics and the quality of energy, and explains why using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to feed the electric grid is a bad idea, no matter how “smart” that grid happens to be, because energy conversion incurs losses that an energy-poor society simply cannot afford. Thanks to his patient and thorough explanations, the reader does not have to be a scientist or an engineer to come to appreciate what an incredible waste of resources it is to squander high-quality (i.e, high-temperature) energy sources such as electricity and natural gas, which are concentrated enough to cut and weld steel, on low-energy tasks such as heating bathwater, or keeping a bed warm—something that can be done with a diffuse, low-energy energy source such as sunlight, or a few furry animals.

Greer's book also serves as a good introduction to the marvels of low-tech, along with an explanation of just how wasteful high technology is, and just how low its productivity is when analyzed in terms of overall resource use rather than in terms of just human labor (a particular blind-spot for the threatened subspecies of economist under discussion in much of the book). Greer knows a lot about technology that is appropriate to a deindustrializing, energy-strapped world: labor-saving devices that do not take exorbitant amounts of energy, fragile international supply chains or dwindling fossil fuel inputs. It turns out that three centuries ago, before industrialization, people were in fact quite clever. The techniques they used were appropriate ones, and limited not so much by lack of better technology as by the scarcity and the intermittent and diffuse nature of the energy sources with which they had to work, and with which we will have to work now that the fossil fuel extravaganza is at its end. Survival certainly does matter; whether economics will still matter is for economists to work out. They should consider themselves helped.


Sean Strange said...

That's all well and good, but what I really want to know is this: will it end with a whimper or a bang? Armageddon or Long Descent? Will the nukes fly or rust forever in their silos? Can industrial civilization really go gently into that good night, or will it rage in an orgy of destruction against the dying of the light?

Jon said...

This is ironic. I just finished an essay that I've been working on for several years called Well Governed Sharks. Mine uses the same Melville quote, but to illustrate how human beings imposed social rules upon themselves in an effort to create civilization.

You may find it interesting.



Terrace said...

Joseph Tainter, in his "Collapse of Complex Societies," at least had the decency to keep his thoughts on "the way forward" confined to a closing paragraph or two. A friend of mine who read the book expressed disappointment at the "missed opportunity" there - I guess he thought it needed a "way forward" chapter.

Bloody hell! Tainter pretty much explained away the concept of "the way forward" as convincingly as anyone ever has. Every complex society except ours has collapsed, and for similar general reasons which we can see at work at this historical moment. And his conclusion (basically, "Er, we need to find more energy that's not oil... or solar... or wind... or any other prohibitively expensive R&D-based solution... so keep paddling!") sounds as if even he himself is unconvinced. Then again, Tainter isn't trying to sell an ideology or a program in his book. He's just examining the historical facts and the patterns they reveal.

Brad K. said...

Sean Strange,

I figure that if it all collapses overnight, then my plans will be to adapt to military/security necessity as best I can. Which won't be pretty.

So I assume that the collapse will become ever more apparent to those trying to ride out the ongoing collapse, and that the end result will be the opposite of globalization.

Globalization tends to blend everything together. Most mass markets in the US are identical, since our Sears, our Walmart, our Daytons all import most everything from China. Gasoline varies very little from Florida to Alaska.

What collapse means, is that sometimes the truck won't get to the store before the shelves run empty. Not to Walmart, not to Sears, for goodness' sake not to Ace Hardware or any other purported "local" store that depends on items shipped dozens or thousands of miles. The outages will be region-wide, in some regions, and blocks-wide in some areas. Sometimes the rural towns will get along well, other times cities will have a simpler time.

If I plan all-out that the balloon goes up on Friday, I load a couple of spare (.22lr) magazines, and wait. If I plan on getting along, and being a resource to people of good character, among friends, family, and neighbors, then I have a lot to do, both to practice living through the end of globalization -- that is, the industrial age -- and to own a bit of courtesy, in refusing to use up any more resources than I must. Today I might stretch that last propane fill a bit -- tomorrow I might have an extra few pounds of potatoes for the neighbors, staving off a bit of starvation at a critical time.

And I won't look on that .22 rifle to be my only prayer.

I expect that "the end" for some folks will feel like one end of your scenario spectrum, while others will legitimately find the other end of your question to be prescient. But I don't think there will necessarily be a consensus when it happens, let alone a correct prediction today.

So I would base your plans on the assumption that you won't know which kind of collapse happens to you.


Anonymous said...

After 10+ years of examining collapse due to peak oil and overpopulation, and asking myself what are the most prudent and pressing related issues, I am now focusing on what might possibly mitigate and prevent social and cultural collapse.

vera said...

Nice review, Dmitry, thank you.

Mark, I think social/cultural collapse is already happening. It's at the cracking stage. The question in my mind is... will we manage to have in place simpler social/cultural structures when the whole edifice goes down, or not? It will make all the difference.

Justin Kase said...

Economists tell us that our financial predators are a necessary part of society rather than the parasites they are. Economists also want us to feel guilty at our failure to "keep up" rather than attack those who drain our wealth and rig the game. It is not entirely their fault, because the predators set their curriculum, and i stopped listening to them long ago.

Meanwhile the predator parasites are behaving more like your feeding frenzy sharks than their former selves. They have decided the herd needs thinning and no longer care if their hosts die. Their answer to limited resourses seems to be cutting the population in half (or more). Unfortunatley you are correct, there is neither time or energy to "reform" them out, and violence plays into their game. The remaining option is to prepare, best we can, for the collapse.

pg said...

Thank you for not only a solidly useful but also "expansive" review. Good writing, too. Special thanks fo the Melville reference and text.
Have you come across his "The Maldive Shark"? Lovely phrases in there waiting to harpoon themselves into your mind.....

DeVaul said...

I agree with Dmytri. It is like looking at an old tree. No matter how magnificent, how ancient, how revered, if all but say 5% is completely rotten, do you really want to try and prune it?

Pruning is the same is reforming, and our country is rotten to the core. Reforming is also dangerous. My neighbor got his wife killed while trying to cut down a rotten branch while standing on a ladder that she was holding. The log snapped and crushed her face. She died at the hospital.

Many reform movements end up with lots of dead bodies and no real change in the law or society. At times, it really is better to just start all over from scratch.

Sharks are sharks and economists are economists. How useful will they be in a barter based economy? At least sharks help keep the ocean clean. Will economists be willing to go in and mop up Fukushima? I doubt it.

A more likely scenario would be that economists will change their names, grow long beards, and pass themselves off as herbalists.

Like many rich people, there will be no use for them in the coming dark age, so why bother to "reform" them? They do not see themselves as needing reform. They only see themselves as needing more money.

Jason said...

I think Greer is right; I hope this isn't enough of a personality-cult type of situation for that to be up for consideration.

Things collapse, no-one knows it better than Greer, but they don't just vanish. Whenever people talk about the vanishing-style collapse, they get very emotional. That's because it's an emotional judgment -- if not against the whole concept of civilization, then certainly a bitterness at having to do it lip-service, an impatience for it all to be 'overwith'. History doesn't listen to our impatience. Tainter said everything collapses, he didn't point out how long tha takes. A slow painful death of a thousand cuts still requires some attempt to see ahead to what you'll be doing around the 678th cut.

My bet is the sobriety of Greer will prove, not exactly accurate (he himself doesn't claim the future is knowable), but a better fit for the general picture. Just read the history of a really full and complete collapse, with all the warlords and changes of boundary etc. etc. -- Morris's Age of Arthur, say. Feel the tempo of it.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's an article suggesting that America has progressed from preaching to sharks to 'jumping the shark'.

Joel said...

My only persistent quibble with Mr. Greer's work, which I've followed for a while now, is that he fails to recognize how high-quality sunlight actually is. It's easily high-quality enough (i.e., bright and blue enough) to weld and cut steel. Some sort of optics are usually necessary, but passive optics don't make light brighter, as anyone with a physics background can tell you.

Brad K. said...


It is my understanding that sunlight is indeed a useful force. It powers most plant growth, and thus directly or indirectly much food production.

I doubt, though, that there is anyway to apply sunlight in sufficiently huge industrial quantities to power cities and factories -- and shipping and other transport systems -- in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

There are wonderful and imaginative applications of sunlight, some using intermediate energy storage to buffer the loss of sunlight to night time, inclement weather, etc.

But putting solar energy on the national grid, in useful quantity, that is where the diffuse nature of sunlight -- vast quantities, but relatively low levels of direct accumulation of energy -- must bow to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are capable of producing a much higher concentration of energy as well as easily scaled quantities of energy.

Sunlight is just too diffuse, too lacking in concentration of energy, to scape up to useful industrial and commercial use.

Kevin said...

Personally I have to credit JMG's patience in explaining things to the clueless with my awakening to our civilization's dire predicament. A few years ago I was like most American a member of the Church of Star Trek. No more!

SandWyrm said...

"The Church of Star Trek"

I love it! It's the perfect way of expressing the attitude we have to fight. That one television series really does embody everything that is wrong about the West's popular view of advancement.

For what it's worth, China has figured out how to harness sunlight for industrial use. They put huge skylights on their factories and don't install much in the way of artificial lighting.

Brad K. said...

I am not sure China makes a good example. I mean, Chinese factories don't allow for labor unions, OSHA, or the EPA.

That makes for a very different environment, and a very different set of options going forward.

Where off-the-map operations can ignore OSHA, the EPA, and the unions that way, they seem to get by pretty well.

Ironic, isn't it? The US Government is so wrapped up in regulating everything (to death!), that the only sustainable paths to survival are in despite of the government.

I still marvel at how "organic" became "Organic",with Monsanto products and the USDA agribusiness industrial complex as loud participants. Only "organic" can't be used, anymore, to mean what it did.